Ahmad Jamal’s Portland Jazz Festival concert focused primarily on pieces from his recent Saturday Morning CD. Since early in his career, Jamal has been a master at making rhythm work for him. That hasn’t changed, although in his current quartet he and rhythm have plenty of help from drummer Herlin Riley, the ingenious percussionist Manolo Badrena and bassist Reginald Veal. In “Saturday Morning,” “Back to the Future,” and the standards “Blue Moon” and “The Gypsy,” Jamal’s exchanges with his sidemen were laced with explosive full-bodied chords, frequent pauses for dramatic effect and sly harmonic punctuations.
Stimulated by the enthusiasm of the audience packing the Newmark Theater, Jamal (pictured with Riley and Veal) proceeded from tune to tune with pauses so brief that it was sometimes nearly impossible to tell when one stopped and the next began. He accompanied his playing with smiles at his colleagues, at the audience, into the wings and into the keyboard. At one point during “The Gypsy,” he pointed at Veal, everyone else in the band went quiet and the bassist gave a three-and-a-half-minute demonstration of his instrument’s range, tonal qualities and capacity for amplifier-assisted volume. In a later solo, Veal showed that the bass, vigorously struck on the fingerboard, can be a drum. Riley’s playing throughout the concert, can fairly be called a highlight. In “I’ll Always Be With You,” he soloed expressively and at length using sticks on only the hi-hat cymbal, a tour de force technique that Max Roach credited to Jo Jones and Riley may have learned from Roach.
Badrena, with his amazing rack of percussion, was a study in sonic variety and nonstop motion as he selected instruments from his array and used them to interpose offbeats and the sounds of whistles and bells. He also used his voice as a percussion instrument, once shouting, mystifyingly, “Ya gotta give me some heat.” Bandera, Riley, Veal and Jamal seemed to be giving plenty of heat.
These days, rather than slowing in his eighties, Jamal is playing with keyboard virtuosity that early in his career he held in reserve. He has substituted power and surprise for the harmonic subtlety and continuity of melodic line that led Miles Davis to remark in the 1950s that all of his inspiration came from Jamal. He appears to be having a marvelous time doing it. The audience gave him a standing ovation. Portland audiences tend to show massive, long, appreciation. Before he left the stage, Jamal stopped, lifted his hands, hunched his shoulders as if to say, “I couldn’t help it,” and smiled.