Sound Checks

Jan 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
Ahmad Jamal
Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 27-30;
Jazz at the Bistro

Pianist Ahmad Jamal, appearing in a trio setting this week as part of the Jazz at the Bistro series, has some interesting musical ties to St. Louis. Although he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Jamal gained his first high-profile job in the jazz world when he was hired as the pianist for the George Hudson Orchestra in 1949. Hudson was the leader of one of the top bands in the St. Louis area, and it served as the developing ground for great musicians such as Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins. Jamal was only 18 when he joined Hudson, but his keyboard work with Hudson's orchestra drew strong acclaim.

Soon Jamal was leading his own groups, and his trio recordings in the 1950s established him as a unique talent. Instead of following in the footsteps of bop piano legend Bud Powell and working up and down the keyboard at breakneck speed, Jamal found his own style. He blended sudden shifts in tempo and mood with a skillful use of dynamics and understated swing. And by knowing the value of silence and paring unneeded notes from his solos, Jamal opened up his music in an airy, ethereal way.

Jamal's use of space and dynamics proved to be a tremendous influence on another St. Louis musician -- Miles Davis. At a time when Jamal's work was being panned by most jazz critics, Davis frequently cited the pianist for his skill and openly acknowledged Jamal's strong imprint on his own music.

Jamal is playing as well today as he ever has, making his appearances this week a must-see event for local jazz fans. (TP)

Alan Licht and Darin Gray
Friday, Jan. 29; Cicero's

Over the course of his "career," Alan Licht has worn a couple of different hats: that of the freaked-out guitarist in early-'90s New York rock band Love Child; member of a more skewed and occasionally clumsy band, Run On; and, more recently, a respected improvisational guitarist. With Love Child, Licht mastered solid rock that set a tone and stuck with it. With Run On, tones and rhythms shifted more often, although my favorite song by the band -- which Licht sings -- "Doesn't Anybody Love the Dark," is also their most conventionally structured. For his performance at Cicero's, Licht will appear with Darin Gray, who performs on the recent Hoffman Estates (Drag City), a collaboration by Licht, Loren MazzaCane Connors and a host of Midwestern improvisors. Licht himself can better explain his approach to improv, which he did in a recent interview with the zine Perfect Sound Forever: "Derek Bailey once said that improvisation is a still-born art form. You can be pretty successful on a purely intuitive basis or after having a lot of musical training. By the same token, you can be unsuccessful in both those ways too. Even if you really understand the philosophy of it and the aesthetic of it, there's always going to be periods in any kind of improvisational piece where you're just treading water, waiting for something else to happen.... I always say that it's like living a day of your life, it's not one exciting minute after another -- it's periods of excitement and boredom." (RR)

Chick Corea and Origin
Saturday, Jan. 30; Sheldon

Chick Corea made his recording debut as a leader back in 1966, and over the past three-plus decades he's become one of the most prolific pianists in jazz, releasing a torrent of recordings. Corea has also been one of the most unpredictable of jazz musicians, bouncing from jazz fusion with Return to Forever and his Elektric Band to acoustic bop, solo keyboard work and even performances with classical ensembles. Over the years, Corea has also been a frequent visitor to St. Louis, and recently his favorite performing space has been the Sheldon Concert Hall. He turned in a dazzling solo piano performance at the venue last year, and he returns in the company of his newest group project, an acoustic sextet called Origin.

Corea put Origin together at the end of 1997, and the band's first release was a live set recorded at the Blue Note in New York City. The band features an excellent group of musicians: a rhythm section of bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard, along with a front line of Steve Davis on trombone; Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and flute; and Bob Sheppard on bass clarinet, flute and tenor sax. It's a lineup that offers Corea plenty of flexibility in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, and lots of firepower as well.

If you're wondering about the name, Corea explains it this way in his liner notes to Origin's first release: "One of the ideas of Origin is returning to the roots. Just working with acoustic instruments where I think the roots of jazz lie." (TP)

Contributors: Terry Perkins, Randall Roberts