If you wanted to make Miles Davis happy during the mid-1950s, it seemed all you needed to do was mention the name Ahmad Jamal and the mercurial trumpeter would light right up. Davis praised the young Chicago-based pianist to the skies, lauding his creative use of silence, his rhythmic ease, his light touch, his imaginative group arrangements. For Davis, Jamal was a beacon of inspiration.
Jamal, now 74, continues to tour and record. To hear his music today, either live or on recent albums, you may wonder what the Davis-Jamal connection was all about. Jamal's playing has taken on a baroque and utterly idiosyncratic manner that, while arresting, has little in common with the spare style of his early fame. To fully comprehend what excited Davis, you have to turn to Jamal's initial recordings, particularly "Chamber Music of the New Jazz," which has just been reissued after being unavailable for years.
Even listeners aware of Jamal may not be familiar with the music of his 1955 trio. One of the few authentic jazz musicians to have a hit album on the pop charts, Jamal became an overnight sensation with his 1958 album "At the Pershing," featuring what became his signature performance, "Poinciana," and the essential contributions of bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier.
The significant difference between 1955's "Chamber Music of the New Jazz" and "Pershing" is the use of Ray Crawford's electric guitar where Fournier's percussion would soon be. Without drums, rhythmic textures become even more expansive. Crawford's luminous chord work adds a harmonic shimmer to the overall sound as it interweaves with Jamal's keyboard and Crosby's detailed bass work. (Note Crawford's clever and effective "bongo" playing: By rhythmically tapping his guitar, he approximates a Latin drum tone.)
Maybe the best way to appreciate the radically spacious atmosphere of the Jamal trio is to compare it with other mainstream piano ensembles of the time. Bebop piano, with its codes set down by the frenetic and technically awesome Bud Powell, ruled. Jamal -- despite being a classically trained virtuoso, certainly capable of handling bebop's velocity and force -- turned his back on the prevailing style. His airy touch, open phrasing and startlingly spare melodic lines -- paradoxically set off by consciously formal arrangements -- must have come as a revelation to musicians looking to expand their horizons. As Davis commented at the time: "He doesn't throw his technique around like Oscar Peterson. Things flow into and out of each other."
The paper trail of influence between Jamal and Davis couldn't be easier to follow once you hear "Chamber Jazz." Davis and arranger Gil Evans reconfigured two of the album's tracks, "New Rhumba" and "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone but You)" for Davis's classic 1957 album "Miles Ahead," modeling their big-band charts on Jamal's trio blueprints.
"Chamber Jazz" also includes renditions of Cole Porter's "All of You," Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" and Rodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here," all of which would be recorded by Davis within a few years.
If the "Pershing" trio garnered the fame and fortune, the Jamal-Crawford-Crosby edition may have been the more stimulating and satisfying ensemble. To hear additional music from this short-lived but influential group, turn to the CD titled "Poinciana," which, despite its attention-grabbing title, concentrates on Jamal's earlier ensembles and brims with musical details that Davis also cherry-picked.