AT THE PERSHING: ALBUM REVIEW
The Pershing Hotel, located at 64th & Cottage Grove in Chicago, was primarily used to house soldiers during the day in the 1950s, but at night the hotel transformed into one of the most influential jazz clubs outside of New York City. The club’s almost completely black audience was consistently treated to jazz’s best, including Charlie Parker, Sun Ra, and Dizzie Gillespie. But, perhaps what the Pershing is most famous for is producing the magnum opus of the great Ahmad Jamal, At the Pershing: But Not for Me.
Jamal was one of the most successful and interesting band-leaders of his day. His band, made up of himself on keys, bassist Israel Crosby, and drummer Vernel Fournier, was the house band at The Pershing Hotel in 1958, so this record catches the band at just a normal night at the hotel lounge. This is clear from the recording: you can hear people getting rowdy and even ordering drinks a couple of times during the set. The lounge atmosphere fits Jamal’s vibe well, it allows the listener to get a sense of the atmosphere of the recording and appreciate how expertly Jamal could read a room. Although at-surface-level he plays relatively unassuming piano-jazz, you can’t help but feel something radical in the way he plays. The way Jamal uses space and most importantly the way he uses silence are still awe-inspiring today.
The album starts relatively slow with the cuts “But not for Me” and “Surrey with the fringe at the top.” Both songs are playful and showcase Jamal’s ability to flawlessly play off of the strengths of his two other band members. At certain points, his experimentalist nature shines through, like on “Surrey with the fringe at the top” where he spends 30 full seconds ideating on a single note, but they mostly stay within the traditional lane of piano jazz. These songs introduce the listener to the playful yet precise style that Jamal goes on to define in the rest of the album.
At the Pershing: But Not for Me hits its groove with the song “Moonlight in Vermont,” which is stunningly beautiful in its presentation. On the song, Jamal’s right and left hands sound like completely different instruments: While his right hand delicately tinkles away toward the higher notes on the piano, his left blends a complex mix of melodies, creating an intricate and beautiful landscape. Jamal has the ability to keep a song swinging and playful even through tempo changes and moments of silence.
Silence is when Jamal’s ability really showcases itself. He shows no desire to fill up every minute on the record with his playing. He leaves seconds of silence for the listener to wonder when his melodies will reappear. A great example of this is on his most famous song, “Poinciana.” While the drums and bass play repetitive, swinging rhythms, Jamal ducks in and out of the picture with his piano. It’s truly impossible to know what is coming next from him. He’ll disappear for a couple of seconds then come back like he’s never left. Every second of the song you sit in a suspense.
Jamal has carried his music with him through life, in fact, he still performs today even at 90 years old, but in recent years Jamal has truly found a home in samples. Listening to this project, and his discography as a whole, there are so many instances where hip-hop fans will immediately recognize a beat to one of their favorite records. This makes the album such a fun and wild listen as you hear Jamal’s influence throughout time.
At the Pershing: But Not for Me completely centers Jamal. Both Crosby and Vernel Fournier do fantastic jobs, but the goal of this trio is to showcase Jamal’s unique touch on the piano. This album is an immense creative accomplishment and it’s no wonder it still sounds fresh to this day. We are blessed that Jamal is still around to play and show the power of what the jazz he used to create can inspire in others.