There's never any doubt about what to expect from an Ahmad Jamal program: intense, theatrical contrasts of mood and color, unexpected shifts of harmony, and some solid rhythmic grooves.
The veteran pianist's late set at the Jazz Bakery Tuesday night, in the first performance of a weeklong run, was typical of his capacity to move well beyond the familiar theme and variations procedures of jazz. Working with Calvin Keys (guitar), Jeff Chambers (bass) and Arti Dixon (drums), Jamal made almost every piece into a kind of mini-suite filled with changing tempos, spontaneous alterations of song and subject, and a persistent, underlying sense of musical whimsy.
Jamal's orchestral approach to his instrument is vastly different from the right-hand-melody, left-hand-chords style used by many contemporary pianists. And because he rarely relied on straightforward melodic improvisation alone, the infrequent occasions in which a melodic line suddenly emerged from a surge of harmonic bombast were doubly effective. His up-tempo work, beautifully supported by the understated, but solid rhythm team, was irresistibly foot-tapping music, provoking frequent cries of enthusiasm from the moderate-sized crowd.
But Jamal was at his best with ballad material, perhaps because it provided him with the greatest opportunities to stretch his musical imagination and play the games of musical quotation and reference that add such piquancy to his performances. A gorgeous, rhapsodic rendering of "My Foolish Heart" was begun with a brief, muted chorus of "Without a Song." And the lovely "Autumn in New York," with an offhanded allusion to "I'll Take Manhattan," led to a middle groove tour through "I Didn't Know What Time It Was."
Miles Davis once said of Jamal: "I live until he makes another record"--a startling statement on the face of it, but less so when one considers that Davis, like Jamal, had enormous respect and understanding for the manner in which pacing and contrast make for convincing jazz improvisation. And Jamal still does it as well as anyone.
* The Ahmad Jamal Quartet at the Jazz Bakery through Saturday. 3233 Helms Ave. (310) 271-9039. $17 admission tonight, Friday and Saturday at 10:30 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m.; $20 admission Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m.