My friend Jared treated me and my wife to tickets for jazz legend Ahmad Jamal and his quartet this past Friday night. Jared snapped this photo from our balcony seats at Portland’s incredible Newmark Theater (only 62 feet from the stage no matter where you sit).
The whole experience was kind of otherworldly for me. Though I’d been to one other jazz affair in Portland I had never set foot in the venerable Newmark, and the last two shows I saw in Portland were at the Doug Fir – a much more comfortable atmosphere for my late 20-something indie-music-loving self.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the lobby – no one was wearing jeans. That’s pretty rare for a Portland Friday night. Outside of a suit that is literally collecting dust at the bottom of my closet, I don’t even own a pair of slacks or khakis anymore. I just never have occasion to wear them and the laid back Portland vibe never requires it. (Almost never!)
So right away I knew I was a little outclassed. And as we took our seats in the theater I knew that the atmosphere had been pretty much pitch perfect for the caliber of music I was experiencing.
For the first couple of numbers I was just getting settled in – it was mellow, piano-led jazz, no sax or trumpet, and all in all it was pretty benign. Neither offensive nor terribly exciting. Even so it was really interesting just to realize that I’m witnessing the patriarch of jazz music – the one who Miles Davis said he owes everything to – and I’m sitting not 60 feet from him. The amount of life in his bones, and all of that life experience flowing from his fingertips to the keys, transmuted into beautiful improvised plinks, scales, and cadenzas, was a lot to consider.
Soon came the two highlights of the show for me – a song written after a trip to Lebanon whose name I could not decipher, and the famous “Saturday Morning.” The first was a sprawling adventure that really transported me to a different consciousness. I was there, sitting in that darkened theater listening intently, but I was also somewhere else. Somewhere Arab, hot, swarthy. My wife would later say “Man, that Lebanon song took me right back to the grand market in Togo.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one so captivated by this tune.
It started with a vocal warble by the auxiliary man – very much like the Muslim call to prayer – and then meandered through a synesthetic journey. I heard busy, chaotic and dusty streets in the asymmetrical patterns of the drums, street performers trying to make a dime in the high accents of the warm congas, and a riverside of peace and calm amid the bustling chaos in the continuous piano line. I didn’t want it to end, and for about 12 minutes it didn’t.
Then came “Saturday Morning,” definitely the most relatable and gripping piece of the relatively short set. (The show started promptly at 7:00 and we walked out at 8:35). The number really did feel like a easy-going weekend morning, a breakfast on the veranda, a no-plans, no-cares, no-drama lifestyle. It’s amazing how music can communicate so much, even without words.
The one slightly distracting part of the performance was the auxiliary percussionist who was continually rubbing his hands, removing and adding his jacket, sweating profusely, wiping it with whatever was around, popping and unpopping his collar. At one point he actually took his mic in the middle of a tune and said “Someone turn up [off?] the heater!” The whole band stopped and looked at him. Ahmad shook his head then brought the song back again. It was weird enough that it didn’t seem planned, but the other players continued on as if it was just another flourish, another improvisation in the musical journey.
The Newmark’s acoustics are so impressive that every tiny sound being produced on stage could be heard unmistakably – soft hand slaps on the body of the bass, gentle hand taps on the rim of a bongo, the spontaneous “yeah yeah yeah”utterances of a drummer caught up in the moment, and yes, the sandpaper rubbings of a presumably drug-addled auxiliary man.
But the thread that held everything together and made this truly a gestalt experience was Ahmad Jamal himself. His gentle, distinctive approach to the keys, his small frame and perfect posture, his shoulders dipping and shifting with the rhythms, his intermittent decisions to stand up from the piano and just watch a solo – his revelry was our revelry. In some ways it felt like what it might be like to see Ray Charles perform today: a poised, confident, genius carrying the weight of having lived eight generations on this Earth but doing so with grace and ease. Whatever difficulties the man has encountered, he has successfully processed it all through his intuitive fingertips and forged a delicate yet permanent musical etching on the consciousness of millions.
And now, I’m one of the millions. Thank you, Ahmad Jamal, for all your contributions to this music, and for one unforgettable evening in the city.