At The Pershing: But Not For Me // Ahmad Jamal (Argo LP 628)

Here’s the record that caused me to re-examine why I buy jazz records. Here’s the record that re-sparked my excitement and love towards records. And at the end of the day, here’s an album that has some fantastic music on it.

The Music

The Tune: “Poinciana”
Recorded: 16 January, 1958 at the Pershing Hotel, Chicago, IL

  • Ahmad Jamal- Piano
  • Israel Crosby- Bass
  • Vernell Fournier- Drums
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What’s there for me to say that hasn’t been said before by someone else about this album? The entire album is a gem, perfect from beginning to end. This is one of those rare albums that can be listened through completely without skipping a single track.

They hit numerous grooves and flows on the music on this record to the point that I have to stop at times and just listen. The swing that these three musicians could create just doesn’t make sense. Vernell Fournier’s drumming is the epitome of pocket and taste, whether he’s swishing with brushes or laying a deceptively simple Latin rhythm down for the rest of the group to float over. Israel Crosby’s bass work here is rock solid and tasteful as well, perfectly outlining both the rhythmic and the musical structures of the music. Both musicians freed Ahmad Jamal up to effortlessly breeze over, under, behind, and on the music’s pulse. There’s numerous examples of this on this album, but the greatest example of all is, of course, the most popular track from the album and the track that made this album a hit and put Ahmad Jamal on the map: “Poinciana”

Jamal’s version of this track is so cool, so fresh, so revolutionary, that honestly I don’t know what to say about it. I remember when I first heard this track. I was kid in elementary school, it was a dark, stormy Sunday afternoon, and I was listening to the local jazz radio (back when the Inland Empire had a jazz station. Shoutout to 89.1 KJAZ!!!). This song came on while I was folding clothes, and by the time the drummer kicked things off and Jamal started playing the first of his many riffs and vamps, I had stopped folding and was just staring at my radio. It was the most unorthodox jazz song I’d heard but I was liking what I was hearing. When the song ended and the radio host came back and said what it was and who it was by, I wrote it down. That was my introduction to Ahmad Jamal, and I’ve been grooving to his music and “Poinciana” in particular ever since.

The bass line, the drum beat, and Jamal’s many riffs all combine to make for an unforgettable version of this song. In fact, Jamal’s version is so fresh and inventive in its simplicity that I find myself comparing every other version of “Poinciana” to this one. Hail, this may be THE best version of “Poinciana” in existence today. I dare somebody to find a version that grooves as hard yet as effortlessly as this one.

The moment Fournier hits the drum hard and starts up that rhythm with the complicated figure on the drums while maintaining that cymbal strike on beats 2 and 4 like metronome… I mean, that’s just nasty. Jamal’s tasty, minimalist piano phrasings and riffs keep the music unburdened and light while swinging like nobody’s business. If you can’t tell, I like this song and this album.

The rest of the album is in the same vein, with “Wood’yn You” in particular being another track that’s just too clean and tasty. Ahmad Jamal got knocked (and in some circles, still does) for being nothing other than a glorified cocktail pianist, even while people like Miles Davis heaped nothing but praise on him and his style of playing-and not playing. In fact, when this album came out in 1958, ‘Down Beat’ magazine wrote a faintly damning review that panned the music. Later that year, it had to admit the record was selling well, which was an understatement. It spent a whopping 107 weeks on the Billboard charts, which is a little over two years. You can argue the polemics and politics of this album and Jamal’s playing, but I love this album. It swings, it grooves, it’s got taste, catchy phrases, and excellent playing. I’m happy.

The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: D

Just because an album is a bonafide classic doesn’t mean its cover art gets a pass. The album artwork is classic as well, but yikes. It had potential, with the black space designated for the print being a great addition. It’s the picture that makes things difficult. First, it’s at a weird angle. Really weird. Then, just as we’re fighting for some orienting feature like, I don’t know, THE PIANO, we realize that it’s not in the picture. As our blood pressures start to rise, we’re momentarily distracted by the patterned blanket in the background. Or is it a curtain? While our blood pressures continue their climb upwards, we realize that the background is not blue at all. At least not originally. The picture of Ahmad Jamal was cut out of its original photo and was photoshopped onto the blue background. It’s a big yikes all around. Don Bronstein had some fine artistic moments during his tenure at Argo/Chess Records. This was not one of those moments, bless his heart.

Also, what IS the name of this album? Is it ‘But Not For Me’? Perhaps it’s ‘At The Pershing’? Maybe ‘The Ahmad Jamal Trio At the Pershing’? Or could it be ‘At The Pershing: But Not For Me’? Or is it…

The Back

Mimicking the music, the back is minimalistic in design. The first half of the liner notes feature the hype-filled prose of Chicagoan radio personality Sid McCoy. The second half of the notes feature the humble and informatively succinct writings of Ahmad Jamal himself. He discloses that there were 43 tracks taped, of which 8 were chosen by Jamal himself for this album. The best part of his liner notes? “I…sincerely hope that our listeners will derive some degree of enjoyment from them.” Ha. A million-plus copies later, I’m sure the listeners derived SOME degree of enjoyment.

The Vinyl

I find it amusing how record companies described their particular sound to make it as marketable as possible. For 1958, Argo went with the relatively plain ‘ultra high fidelity’. I’m not an expert on Argo labels, but the plain black labels coupled with the deep groove lead me to believe that this is an earlier pressing, perhaps even one of the initial pressings before the album was a humongous hit. If it was charting for 107 weeks, that would mean that it was just starting to fall off the charts in 1961, the closing days of the deep groove. Then again, deep groove shows up on Argo records into the 1960’s, so who knows.

My copy is in glorious mono, and while the sonics aren’t as high def as 1958 professional live recording could’ve been, the acoustics are fine and the entire band comes through loud and clear. To be fair, this was Jamal’s first live recording, and possibly among the first of Argo’s live albums, so maybe everyone was getting into the hang of things. Personally, I think the less-than-perfect recording quality gives the music some charm! After wanting this album on vinyl for so long, I lucked out, since this record plays pretty quietly and with excellent fidelity. The vinyl gods smiled on me once again!

The Place of Acquisition

I found this album at the record store back home in Redlands, California this past February. As I detailed here, finding it resulted in a multitude of feelings, mostly happy ones. Ever since I first “Poinciana” on the radio as a jovenes, I always wanted to own this album. Now that I finally got this on vinyl, my jazz record collection just got a bit more complete and a lot more hip in my eyes!

2 thoughts on “At The Pershing: But Not For Me // Ahmad Jamal (Argo LP 628)

  1. Your childhood memory of hearing the record was so fun to hear and so special! When I first got into jazz, this album screamed at me, in its own way, meaning it really spoke to me. This may even be a better intro to jazz than Kind of Blue. The minimalism in the interpretations and the soloing, and the repetitious riffs all make it extremely accessible. I have to be honest though: as I got more into jazz, i kind of left it behind as a “beginner” album. Well now that I’ve outgrown a lot of the BS stereotypes I held about jazz, it is so refreshing to listen to this album again. Good choice.

    1. I agree that this album as a whole is extremely accessible. Like you, I really liked this album initially, then as I got more into jazz, I felt ashamed to say I still dug this record. Screw those stereotypes, though. We like what we like and that’s the best policy when it comes to listening to music.

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