Ahmad Jamal






Like the luxurious cigar brand of the same name, the phantasmagoric eight-track travelog Macanudo by acclaimed Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick “Fritz” Russell Jones in 1930) is something truly special and surprisingly affordable. Recorded in two days at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio in New Jersey shortly before Christmas 1962 and released in early 1963 on the Argo label, it depicts a magnificently diffusive and string-charged mirage which unfolds into figurative locations as colorful as a rainbow in paradise. I know, words like these sound awful and overly prosaic, but I assure you that Macanudo is a gem. And a short one it is too, clocking in at a mere 24 minutes; exactly the right duration for a short midday snooze.


Despite Ahmad Jamal’s name on the front artwork, the album could have potentially worked without him in an alternative reality, for even though his skillful prestidigitation on the piano is essential in all tracks, the man behind the record is actually Richard Lee Cowan Evans. A nimble-fingered bassist, talented songwriter and knowledgeable arranger, he is the persona in charge of the production and conducts the orchestra which accompanies the pianist with lush strings, silkened brass layers, effervescent reeds and sizzling percussion. Ferrante & Teicher's Pianos In Paradise (1962) comes to mind indeed, although Macanudo offers one luring tidbit: all eight tunes are written by Evans and hence unique. However, in order to generate larger sales, Ahmad Jamal’s name is much more prominently mentioned. Macanudo, in hindsight, uses a diffuser and poeticizes its output. The sound quality is crisp and clean, the ensuing panoramas meanwhile are designedly mellow and amicable, so that the listener can forget about the weight of the world. What was the name of that genre again which allows this form of plastic escapism? Ah right: Exotica!


First stop: the famous bustling city named Montevideo in Uruguay. Launching the beautiful vista with joyfully warbling flutes and compatible foils on the horns, the melody grows convoluted and could be denominated as “typically jazzy,” no matter how dubious or enlightening such a description might be. Inheriting the spirits of a Jazz quartet and placing it in an orchestral context, Montevideo continues to showcase heavily whirling serpentines of melodies. After 30 seconds, Ahmad Jamal ennobles the textural abundance with his piano which leads to a double bass-accentuated solo and an interplay with ebullient brass helixes. The mood is uplifting and – probably more importantly – decidedly upbeat, but incessantly benign. The flute tones and the piano aorta emanate a strong feeling of pristine carefreeness, with the brass accompaniment being slightly more fiery and dynamic, making Montevideo an eclectic joyride for the more skilled listener, no insult or exclusion intended whatsoever!


Next on the agenda is a fleeting visit to Columbia, to be more precise: Bogota. Even though it is a midtempo composition, it has prowess written all over it. Being a bit more minimal in terms of its textural base, it still enchants with the help of rhythm shifts, jazzy hi-hat grooves, bongo droplets in tandem with kettle drums and a stupefying majesty as delivered by Jamal’s solemn chords. Brass eruptions soon join the soft verdure and cause a rhythm shift that feels juicy and vigorous. This is the tune that demands a proficient pianist, and Ahmad Jamal is clearly the right guy in the limelight. Reversely grafting a big band setting onto a piano arrangement, Bogota sparkles and gleams to this day and has not lost anything of its magic.


The following situation takes place at the Sugar Loaf At Twilight. The listener travels to Rio de Janeiro, no doubt about that. The stylistic complexion of Macanudo is widened here for the first time, as bedazzling breezes of aeriform strings waft through the soundscape. This twilight seems to be closer to the dawn chorus, for its cavalcades of colors implicitly announce a new day. The dreamy glissando of the Harp, the glistening glockenspiels, the acoustic guitar accents and the twirling vibrato of the bird-evoking flutes coalesce with the ubiquitous friendliness. Sugar Loaf At Twilight is at the razor’s edge and risks the danger of being unrealistically schmaltzy, but Jamal and Evans climb around such rocks and deliver a highly accessible and perfectly streamlined, yet utterly enjoyable paradisal location.


Side A closes with a short trip to a Haitian Market Place. A Hollywood-like feeling is in the air, polylayered brass scents and their stabbier next of kin illumine the hi-hats and bongos of the easygoing rhythm before Ahmad Jamal has the virtual stage all for himself, with only the percussionists surrounding his mercurial sequences on the piano. The tune ends the way it began, with grandiloquent Occidental brass blasts that unleash globs of spy themes or Crime Jazz allusions. Since the horns are never over the top or furiously incisive, they work to the advantage of the composition and make Haitian Market Place another showstopper.


Side B has exoticism all over it as well. The self-explanatory Buenos Aires lures the listener with a particularly sunny arrangement of polyphonous horns full of glee. These are the main ingredients on this piece, Ahmad Jamal’s work on the piano proves to be a genteel counterpart to the good-natured omnipresence of the trumpets and saxophones, but the feeling of listening to a show tune cannot be diminished. This is the least exotic track off Macanudo, and yet does its swinging structure succeed big time and may converse even those listeners who do not like big band settings. Euphony and catchiness are simply too veritable too ignore. Bossa Nova Do Marilla then turns out to be the Latin sapphire with a combo-breaking contemplative quasi-threnody via its sanguine strings. Notwithstanding the darker allusions of the strings and Jamal’s performance on the piano, the revved up percussion does work really well, as do the pizzicato strings and the Pagan flute airflows. The tune seems to lighten up over its course and shakes its archetypical lamento aura off for good.


Carnival In Panama makes a U-turn and features melodramatically dissonant, eminently translucent brass stabs and puts them into a Samba-infested jumble of drums, maracas and traces of joy. The mood is unsuspectedly complex and seemingly contrasts with the art of Samba; it remains accessible enough to not alienate the listener overly much. Carnival In Panama views the joy of life through jazzy glasses. Eclecticism is king. The journey ends in Belo Horizonte, a specifically melodious and easy-to-digest piece. Every partaking instrumentalist makes sure that his or her instrument encapsulates the trifold formula of embracement, amicability and light. Indeed, Belo Horizonte is supercharged with contentment at worst and utter joy at best. The piano coils are accessible, the sweeping harp enthralls, the acoustic guitar is awash with sun beams, the strings are flamboyant and last but not least, the horns are mellifluous. Depending on each listener’s viewpoint, this final track is possibly all too shallow and superficial after such a high quality string of catchy yet complex billows, but this is up for debate as usual. I for one like the more lightweight nature of the closer, as it leads to a state of blitheness and bliss which sums up the endemic gaseous smoke of Macanudo in an effective manner.


Like a good cigar, Ahmad Jamal’s and Richard Evans’ Macanudo is based on different, sometimes contrastive ranges of flavors, but for a dedicated Jazz album with additional orchestral elements, it is delicately well-groomed and melodious. Jamal’s piano spirals are sometimes convoluted, but never for the sake of being designedly labyrinthine, let alone in order to show the prowess and talent of the pianist. The opposite is the case: the piano serves the aura of the depicted location, either soaking up the circumambience of the orchestra, or on the contrary influencing the look or timbre via its status as the lead instrument. Macanudo is so enthralling and relaxing thanks to its hybrid state. The conflictive intertwinement of a symphonic Jazz album is cleverly resolved with the addition of a third ingredient, namely Exotica.


Naturally, the genre means many things to even more people, but it usually tries to provide a hammock-friendly, potentially mystified kind of escapism which can only work when there are not all too much harshness, turmoil or avantgarde mannerisms involved. Henceforth, Macanudo, as the saying goes, has it all: Latin duskiness, a string-fueled magnificence, brass-infused heterodynes as well as true-to-form Jazz flavors as delivered by Ahmad Jamal on the piano. The album may be short even by Exotica standards, but this is no flaw per se, as it allows an easy consumption in one go, at least via its digital incarnation. The album just feels great, as strange as this may seem. This travelog is no exclusive Easy Listening record, no Jazz dob, no big band critter or Latin artifact: it is everything at once, held together by the alloy one calls Exotica. Available on LP and as a remastered download version at iTunes and Amazon MP3. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013, this little album should not be missed. 


Exotica Review 250: Ahmad Jamal – Macanudo (1963). Originally published on Aug. 17, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.