On jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 album “The Awakening,” there’s a chord progression that every hip-hop fan will immediately recognize.
As it’s hidden near the five-minute mark on the A-side’s second song, I am imagining legendary producer Pete Rock must have zoned out to the record and found that golden piano line deeply buried in the last third of “I Love Music.”
Pete chopped the loop, put some drums and a filtered bassline underneath. His beat was picked by a young rapper named Nas, who would go down in history as one of the greatest hip-hop lyricists. The song he wrote to the beat, “The World Is Yours,” landed on 1994’s “Illmatic,” his classic debut album, heralded by fans and journalists as the best hip-hop record of the 1990’s. In fact, it became one of its most famous songs.
But “I Love Music” is not the only song on “The Awakening” that has been prominently sampled by a hip-hop producer. The title song features another famous piano line that DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz and, again, Pete Rock have used for different influential rap songs. The late producer genius J Dilla looped it for a beat as well, naming it “Ahmad Impresses Me.”
So what is it about this album that makes it stand out from the vast amount of good-to-great jazz records recorded in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s?
By 1970, Ahmad Jamal was 40 years old, his discography included 20 albums and he had been sort of a star on the jazz scene for a good decade, since he landed an unexpected hit with the 1958 live version of “Poinciana.” Having started out playing the ‘cool jazz’ style in the 1950’s, some of the more conservative jazz critics still looked down on the Pittsburgh native though. It was Miles Davis who prominently defended Jamal, as he loved his lyrical style of playing. Today, Jamal is seen mostly as a misunderstood innovator – just like Thelonious Monk.
In the early 1960’s, Jamal had taken a three year break from playing music professionally. Coming back, he released some of his best work on the Impulse! label.
“The Awakening,” recorded in New York City, was the last album of that stretch, showcasing his more adventurous side. For this album, he played in a trio constellation with Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums. They were all practicing Muslims, and the recordings took place in early February, during Ramadan, so Jamal made sure the musicians got their break every evening to enjoy their first meal of the day.
Producer Ed Michel remembers that Jamal brought the songs he wanted to record. Aside two Jamal compositions and “I Love Music,” written by Emil Boyd and Hale Smith, a composer who had worked with Duke Ellington, the rest of the record was made up of a jazz standard and pieces by Herbie Hancock, Oliver Nelson and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Unfazed by the stylistic developments in 1960’s free jazz and the electric experiments of the era, Jamal created a record centering around his trademark elegance and romanticism. At the same time, it highlighted the innovative, playful elements in his craft, like a secret message to all critics tom never again underestimate him. But not only Jamal is in top form on “The Awakening;” Nasser plays furious double-timing bass lines, and Gant delivers on the drums as well. It was the last album that Jamal played acoustic piano on for a very long period.
When the hip-hop producers rediscovered the album in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it had already been repressed several times. “The Awakening” has been reissued in the Verve By Request series, in a remastered version on 180-gram vinyl, pressed at Third Man in Detroit.
Stephan Kunze is a Berlin-based culture journalist who has been writing about music for magazines and newspapers since 2001. He’s a former Senior Music Editor and Global Editorial Lead at Spotify.
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