Jamal At The Penthouse // Ahmad Jamal, Argo LP 646

A string orchestra in a jazz setting has always been an uneasy relationship, going back to the 1930’s.  Many critics deride such Mozart-meets-jazz mashups, claiming the strings sound too sweet and syrupy, that they don’t swing, or that they overpower the music so that it’s not jazz anymore.  For the most part, those are fair and accurate accusations, but there are a few cases where the strings and jazz combo work extremely well.  This album is case en point.

The Music

  • Ahmad Jamal: Piano
  • Israel Crosby:  Bass
  • Vernell Fournier:  Drums
  • String Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Kennedy

Recorded 27, 28 February, 1959

This is a lovely album of music.  With the sparse, tinkling piano of Ahmad Jamal coupled with a small string section, it exudes class and taste.  Recorded in the banner year of 1959 (Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out were all recorded in 1959), Jamal At The Penthouse is an album featuring Ahmad Jamal’s Trio augmented with a 15-piece stringed orchestra.  The music is succinct, but tastefully done; the string arrangements were written by Ahmad’s childhood friend, Joe Kennedy.  His arrangements are perfectly suited for Jamal’s economical piano playing, with strings acting more as a participant in a conversation than a presenter at a lecture, giving and taking with Jamal’s trio, in the background here, swelling to the fore there.  The relaxed nature of many of the tunes on the album give the music a ‘late night in the city’ kind of vibe.  I included three cuts instead of the normal two partly because of the brevity of the songs and partly because these are all great examples of Jamal’s piano and the tasteful string arrangements.  The last one, ‘Sophisticated Gentleman’, is the epitome of the ‘late-nite’ vibe, while ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Ivy’ swing hard, strings be damned.

The Cover

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College Jazz Collector Rating:  Sophisticated

Every now and then, a record’s cover art not only matches the music, but it helps complete the music itself, so that the art is just as important as the music.  Perfect unity.  This album’s cover does just that.  As I mentioned earlier, the music has a late-night, ‘glittering city lights’ kind of vibe, and with the title of the album completes this mood.  So what else should go on the cover but a tall penthouse rising above a glittering cityscape at night?  You can almost see the man and woman walking in from their night spent at some cocktail party, kicking her heels off, loosening his bow tie, and sitting on the couch, drinking a martini while gazing at the city bustling below them.

The Back

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The record cover has had a somewhat rough life from 1959 to now, as it’s slightly warped, slightly torn, and slightly faded.  Considering that, though, the white tones are still mostly white.  It’s always fun to see what different adjectives and superlatives record companies came up with to describe their sound quality.  Argo described their sound as ‘Ultra High Fidelity’, and described their stereo as a ‘Stereo Odyssey’.  I can dig it.

The Vinyl

The vinyl sounds delicious.  Plain and simple.  Sometimes, independent record labels’ sound quality could be less than great, but Argo (a Chicago-based record label, part of Chess Records) churned out spectacular-sounding records.  And their stereo? Mercy.  In 1959, this record’s music truly would have been a ‘Stereo Odyssey’ for the owners of a fancy HiFi system.  My copy, a beautiful deep groove stereo first pressing, sounds like new.  The recording session was held in the Nola Penthouse Studios in New York, renowned for its acoustics.  With a good set of speakers or headphones, it sounds as though the musicians are right there in the room with you, or perhaps more aptly, you are there in the studio, high above the city with the musicians.  Apparently all the art department cared about was the cover design, as the record labels are rather dull and boring in comparison.

The Place of Acquisition

Good ole’ eBay, where I didn’t pay more than $15 for it.  Ahmad Jamal isn’t a very highly sought-after artist it seems, which is good for poor people like myself.  I commonly see his albums for sale in record stores for under $10 bucks, and even his mega hit ‘Live At The Pershing’ with the tune ‘Poinciana’ goes for a buck.  Again, good for poor folk like myself!

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