Pianist Ahmad Jamal is the Sugar Ray Leonard of jazz, a performer whose quick-handed, in-and-out style seems flashy but lightweight until, wham!, it delivers a devastating knockout punch.

Opening at the Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday night, Jamal and his highly potent musical energy were coiled for action from the very first, fully charged note. Those who stumbled in expecting to hear cocktail jazz surely got the surprise of their lives.

Jamal made few concessions to easy listening. Long past the show-tune phase of his career, he now concentrates on material rich enough to challenge his considerable skills.

Central to virtually every piece Tuesday night, from the lyrical flow of "Afternoon in Paris" to the driving 5 / 4 of "Yellow Fellow," was a continuing dramatic contrast between loud and soft, fast and slow. With these dynamics shifting virtually from bar to bar--sometimes from beat to beat--bassist Jim Cammack was obliged to stay as close to Jamal as his shadow, trailing the harmonies as they stretched here and compressed there, brilliantly matching the pianist's explosive rhythms, burst for burst.

Jamal's phrasing and sense of time, always his strongest assets, have, if anything, grown stronger over the years. A floating, atmospheric interpretation of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" was a virtual definition of how to play jazz in 3 / 4.

A Jamal original, "Crossroads," started in 6 / 8 and built up layers of complex overlapping meters--in Jamal's two-handed rhythms as well as in the passionate conga drum playing of Iraj Lashkary. And guest drummer Steve Smith, pushed to his creative boundaries by Jamal's gentle, but insistent urging, delivered playing that far exceeded anything he ever did with Journey.

Jamal's infrequent appearances in Los Angeles make this week's booking an important one for jazz listeners. He continues at the Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday.

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