Olympia 2000

This quartet date, recorded live at the Olympia in Paris last year, shows 70-year-old pianist Jamal in peak form, his tasteful gaudiness undiminished and his famously epigrammatic approach intact.

Jamal has always been something of a guilty pleasure, despite the early endorsement he received from Miles Davis, who saw past the pianist’s seeming simplicity and admired his use of space and the compositional nature of his solos.

Jamal has always improvised like an arranger, offering a series of self-contained melodic variations (often repeated) instead of the scrabbling abstractions of most bop pianists, and the accessibility of his approach has led some to lump him with such willful lightweights as Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann. But Jamal is a sui generis showboating player, mixing musical quotes, grandly sweeping arpeggios, two-fisted chordal paraphrases and, when called for, a leanly lilting melodicism into a high-concept stew.

As entertaining as it is to hear Jamal still being brashly shallow, the real star here is tenor saxophonist George Coleman. Coleman has suffered from some of the same criticism as Jamal, especially during his brief stint in Miles’ early-’60s quartet where he was perceived as being the weakest link in a group of heavy players, too facile for his own good. (Though one listen to Miles’ 1963 classic Live in Europe — which has yet to appear on CD — should dispel that myth). With his light and slightly pinched tone, his penchant for fluttering impressionism and harsh, bluesy climaxes, Coleman comes across as a thinking-man’s populist, at home both in the ether of transcendence and the grit of tradition. He’s a good match for Jamal, less a foil than a fellow traveler, hovering between a meaningful statement and a good time. Which is what this set is all about.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].