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Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014

Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning (JazzVillage)

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As with Sonny Rollins—another living holdover from the rough roads, long nights and hard medicine of the bop era—it’s tough not to greet a new Ahmad Jamal release with a bit of surprise: He’s still alive? Perhaps it’s testament to his legend—that of maybe the greatest jazz piano player of all time, or the fact that you’d have to scroll through a prodigious catalogue on the website Allmusic to find info on Jamal’s latest, Saturday Morning.    

But upon first hit it feels anything but old. “Back to the Future” kicks in with relentless Latin-tinge and bottom-heavy boogie, led by New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley on a very funkified, very Southern groove, with Jamal dancing and floating all over the lead line like there’s ants in his sleeves. There’s plenty more such pep, with a Caribbean-flavored exploration into the weird reggae fusion world of Jamaica’s Ernest Ranglin on the likes of “Firefly” and “The Line,” both rousing, upbeat, slinky and more danceable than they are detached jazz-club-head-nod. Even the inevitable settle into more polished, “modern” territory—like the lush and lovely “I’m In The Mood For Love”—feels less Brad Mehldau than West Coast cool.

A certain low-down mischievousness, a favoring of smoky atmospherics focused on drum and bass lockstep, furthers Jamal as something like the Philip Roth of jazz. As an artist he’s refined, distinguished and somehow beyond reproach no matter how connected to the profane and corporeal. Or in this case, funk and groove. And similar to our greatest living author, there’s the feel that everything he’s done since the ’70s feels like a bonus, an extended epilogue. Saturday Morning hits like an extra little gift from someone you’re happy stuck around well beyond the party’s end.