"His sound is what people think of when they think of jazz," Jay Weigel, executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), says of pianist Ahmad Jamal. "Not modern jazz or this jazz or that jazz -- jazz."
The CAC hosts the Ahmad Jamal Trio on Saturday as part of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters on Tour series. Since 1982, the NEA has awarded Jazz Masters fellowships to jazz musicians who, according to jazz critic and NEA Deputy Chairman A.B. Spellman, "have affected the course of the music. It's sort of a lifetime achievement award, but we looked to the people who have been the innovators, the major stylists -- basically, the people who have made jazz." The first recipients were Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, and Roy Eldridge, and the only New Orleanian to receive the honor was Danny Barker, who was named a Jazz Master in 1991.
The Jazz Masters program is designed to honor the musicians while they're alive, Spellman says: "We do this at a ceremony at a conference for the International Association of Jazz Educators. We present the awards there, followed by a terrific concert in their honor." The honorees receive a $25,000 award. "We'd like to find a private partner to join us to match that to make it a $50,000 award, but so far we haven't succeeded," Spellman says. "That would make it more newsworthy."
In addition, the NEA awards grants to nonprofit organizations like the CAC to put the artists on tour and works to get television and radio coverage of the Jazz Masters. "We're trying to insinuate the Jazz Masters into the American consciousness," Spellman says.
Jamal, who will perform with bassist James Cammack and New Orleans-born drummer Idris Muhammad, was awarded a Jazz Masters fellowship in 1994 for his distinctive style. "You know Ahmad Jamal within just a few chords," Spellman says. "He has an impeccable sense of time and had the ability to play spare music, so as a consummate trio pianist, the other instrumentalists in the trio -- the drums and the bass -- are part of the composition. They are built into the melody in ways in which only the very greatest can do and are confident enough to do. A lot of pianists want to play every note, but Ahmad has a wonderful way of making the other people be participants in the composition itself."
For the CAC, the Ahmad Jamal Trio represents the start of a three-year program, with Roy Haynes next on Nov. 13 and Randy Weston Feb. 26, 2005. For New Orleanians, it should serve as a wake-up call. Those who think there's something wrong with no living Jazz Masters from New Orleans can go to www.nea.gov/honors/jazz for information on the nominating process.
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The initial buzz on Sam Phillips' A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch) was that it's her "breakup album." She and longtime husband-producer T-Bone Burnett divorced during the making of the album, but, she insists, it isn't exactly that. "It is a work of fiction," she says by phone from Los Angeles. "I don't feel like it's the breakup' record or anything like that. I was on the torch music path anyway."
The songs aren't torch songs in their instrumentation as much as in their emotional nakedness. "If you're carrying a torch for someone, there's some expectation, some hope -- good or bad -- to somehow say what you feel, even if it's not really good show business," says Phillips, who opens for David Byrne on Tuesday at House of Blues. "As a songwriter, I want to lead people into this world, then gently exit out the back door and leave them in there to have the thoughts and the reverie (on the songs) that they're going to have." The musical sensibility has more in common with Tom Waits, though without his sonic extremeness, and will surprise those who haven't listened to her since 1994's Martinis and Bikinis.
Although the album is intense, she doesn't mean it to be a bummer. She laughs when she says Eric Gorphain's violin makes the songs "really sad and desperate-sounding." For the live show, she explains, "We stripped down some of the songs and found ways to take them even further live and make them even more wobbly and broken and human live."
The album was produced by Burnett, which she admits was "complicated," adding, "It's an extraordinary experience to put differences aside, as you'd say, and to work on something creative. Maybe that's not a good idea for every sort of record, but for this particular record, it worked really well, for the sparseness of it and the mood of it, the torch music, the sadness."
- According A.B. Spellman, "You know (jazz pianist) Ahmad Jamal within just a few chords."