When browsing Ahmad Jamal’s discography on Apple Music, look for his “Sampled” playlist. Its collection of Golden Age hip hop artists reads like the honorees at a Source Awards ceremony: De La Soul, Common, Gang Starr, Nas, JAY-Z, DJ Premier, O.C., Hieroglyphics, Pete Rock, and other genre elites.
These tracks were built from Jamal’s work, because his creations speak out to the human condition. They may be considered “undiscovered” tracks, but they are oh-so-feeling that they relate to anyone with an appreciation for melody. Jamal’s parameters are intergenerational and hit you in the heart, never based on a popularity calculation of a previous hit.
Jamal, a Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist, band leader, and composer with a 70-year legacy of recorded music, passed away on April 16 at the wise old age of 92. He had crazy percussive timing. So much so, that his influence on Miles Davis’ career came down to what Davis calls Jamal’s “concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement.”
It kept such on grip on Miles’ cadence that he’d send his musicians to Jamal’s concerts so they could learn to play as Miles wanted.
Decades later, the power of that swing had undeniable sway with those Golden Age hip hop producers. They were captivated by Jamal’s consistent ability to knock out an overpowering theme, refrain, a poignant aria. His tunes held what might be considered the opposite idea of bebop, which tends to run speedily. Jamal, like his fellow pianist, arranger, jazz titan, and genius Thelonius Monk, was more concerned with the texture of phrases, the inner rhythms, than the number of notes played.
This tension and release deliver a more nuanced picture.
The first four minutes of “Swahililand” does just that. The track is found on 1974’s out-of-print Jamal Plays Jamal album, released via 20th Century Records (which folded in 1981—the record goes for $300 top price on Discogs) and features Jamil Nasser on bass, Frank Gant on drums, Azzedin Weston on congas, and Jamal on piano, electric piano, and synthesizer.
The melody, the crux idea of the song, is delivered with pauses, accents, and full-on dramaturgy, making this syncopated fusion of orchestral and jazz arrangements. The main stanza arrives in a swath of bells, congas cooking, and earthy bass lines mapping the tempo out ahead of the storm brewing up. It a fluctuating rise and fall of textures, still rooted in Jamal’s polyrhythmic orchestrations. He pivots from acoustic to electric piano, and stomps out the blues in full ’70s Technicolor volume.
That architect of contemporary music, producer J Dilla hears the stanza at the 7:52 mark. Makes its exclamation point into an iconic sample that became an anthem. Creates history, and intensifies his rise as one of the best producers of his generation.
“With Ahmad Jamal, you don’t have to do a lot of chopping, because his music is already crazy,” says jazz musician and Blue Note Napa Valley 2023 artist-in-residence Robert Glasper in a Youtube video for Jazz Night In America that breaks down some of Jamal’s high points.
That is surely the case with “Stakes Is High,” the single from De La Soul’s album of the same name produced by Dilla, who went by Jay Dee back then. The track served as a calling card for the group’s resurgence with their core fans in 1996, a Puff-Daddy dominated, shiny-suit era of hip-hop.
Using Jamal’s arrangement, with that final stanza that comes after nearly eight minutes of the band smoking hot, rhythm master peer Dilla works out “Stakes Is High” into a monster of an atmosphere. The “Swahililand” sample morphs the track into this rousing, shifting arrangement that is just floating.
Snatching the last molecules of air from your lungs.