Pianist Jamal returns to his heart in Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Pianist Ahmad Jamal says he always is happy to return home to the “phenomenon” of Pittsburgh.

He admits to constantly marveling over the great cast of characters this city has produced — from writer Gertrude Stein to pianist Erroll Garner — and believes the area's work ethic has a great deal to do with it.

“Pittsburgh people know the philosophical truism that if you are spending your time trying to please everybody, you are a damn fool,” he says. “They are a great group of risk-takers. Who plays bass like Ray Brown or sings like Billy Eckstine or plays sax like Stanley Turrentine?”

That sort of appreciation, he says, makes him proud to be part of the group of jazz legends from Pittsburgh. He also is glad to perform in the cozy settings of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on the North Side, where he will be Sept. 27 and 28.

The setting seems far removed from recent appearances at the Marciac Festival in France or concerts in Johannesburg, South Africa, or New York City. But the “thought of coming to Pittsburgh always speaks to me,” he says.

He is here for a special occasion, but says the function is not the important element. It is the trip home that is, he says.

Jamal will perform a concert Sept. 27 and then be the featured guest the next evening at the MCG Jazz Legends Party, the annual fundraising gala. At that event, MCG Jazz will add members to its list of local jazz legends, those who have made Pittsburgh the heart of their musical lives.

Added this year will be singers Michele Bensen and Etta Cox, trombonist Al Dowe, and saxophonists Kenny Blake and Jim Guerra.

Jamal will appear with bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena.

Jamal, 83, started touring right after graduating from Westinghouse High School, and began recording in 1951. As he shaped his personal style, he began to carve a niche in jazz built around an assertive style that can be as aggressive as it is restrained.

That work makes his playing immediately identifiable and has earned him such honors as being named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts and being inducted into the French government's Order of Arts and Letters.

His work and appreciation has allowed him to reach the stage where he can control his performance schedule. He says he tends to pass on work in clubs, preferring concert hall settings.

“I won't say I never play clubs,” he says. “ ‘Never' is a strong word.”

His current album, “Saturday Morning,” was released earlier this month and is made up of seven Jamal originals and three others. It is led by the 10-minute title cut, which is a look at that special time of the week.

“When I started playing it, the title just suggested what the song was about,” he says. “Relaxing. Enjoying the day. Doing grocery shopping. All my compositions suggest to me what they are going to be called.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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