Anatomy of THE Groove: “Black Cow” by Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal-born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania is one of those musicians whom I’ve been discovering a lot about within the last several years. He came into prominence at a time when a lot of younger jazz players just coming up were looking for a stylistic alternative to the be-bop oriented sound all around them. Much like Miles Davis,Jamal was a major innovator of the “cool jazz” school of the mid/late 50’s. Miles even said that Ahmad Jamal’s light touch on piano had an enormous influence on his own playing style after his sister Dorothy introduced him to Jamal’s music for the first time.

My own personal exposure to Jamal’s music didn’t come through anything like cool jazz. It came through my father in one of his mid 1990’s “here’s a jazz version of that” turns. What he played me was a jazz-funk interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by Jamal. Somehow after that,I kind of conceptualized Jamal as being a thoroughly jazz/funk based musician. When actually nothing could be further from the truth. That being said,the man did put his understated style to some sleek funk over the years. My friend Henrique introduced me to another interpretation from 1978 of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”.

Ahmad Jamal plays every melody on this song on the Clavinet. The intro,much as on the original has that direct bassy sound-accompanied by light percussion. As the drums build in,Jamal’s Clavinet tone becomes much higher for the refrain and is accompanied by a heavy drum beat and powerful funk bass line improvising every melodic change. On the choruses,the lead vocals are handled by three backing singers-one of whom is Eloise Laws. As the song progresses,these backup singers vocalize their way around Jamal’s increasingly rolling Clavinet improvisations as the song fads out.

Ahmad Jamal really does this song justice here. And not by altering too much,but rather expanding on what’s there. He upped the tempo just a bit and made it more percussive-which is about all he really changed. Instrumentally this song is a massive jazz/funk showcase for it’s present and funk’s future. The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine is responsible for the sizzling percussion while the rhythm section and vocals are arranged by future SOS Band mentor Sigidi Abdullah. In terms of a cool jazz veteran interpreting then contemporary funk smashes,Ahmad Jamal really had it locked down.

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Filed under 1970's, Ahmad Jamal, clavinet, cool jazz, Funk Bass, Hal Blaine, jazz funk, percussion, Sigidi Abdullah, Steely Dan

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