What is Ahmad Jamal’s secret? There must be a special magic that enables this virtuosic pianist to retain the interest of his audience with a program devoted mainly to relatively little-known original compositions.
At Catalina’s, where he opened Tuesday, Jamal again demonstrated his ability to capture a crowd’s attention, not through the recognizability factor, but on the inherent strength of his ideas, and the shifting and swirling of creative patterns. An almost idyllic introductory passage might lead to a violent rhythmic explosion, then to a sequence in Latin rhythm followed by another in straight 4/4.
If ever any artist symbolized what has been called the sound of surprise, it is Jamal. The same contrasts were evident in “Catalina,” a recent piece named for the club’s owner. Heavy bass accents and blueslike right hand gave way to a simple single-note interlude; high-energy and low-calorie passages went back and forth while Jamal, as if carried away by his own unpredictability, might play for a short while standing up, then sit down to deliver a fusillade of fortissimo chords.
Except for a Jimmy Heath composition, “Melodrama,” all the works were his own. The days of “Poinciana” and “But Not for Me” are far behind him, and though there may be moments when you long for a reminder of his unique way with such familiar themes, what Jamal offers now is more innovative and more demanding both of himself and of his listeners.
He still has James Cammack on electric bass, and a new drummer, Billy Kilson, who followed the lead’s tempo shifts and abrupt dynamic changes sensitively. Only when Jamal stepped away from the keyboard to offer extended time to his sidemen did the interest level lag. A bass interlude or long drum solo tends to break up the continuity.
Significantly, Jamal drew on Tuesday what looked more like a Saturday-night crowd. He will remain at the Cahuenga Boulevard venue through Sunday.