Ahmad Jamal and Fender Rhodes

We tend to think of Ahmad Jamal as a pioneer of the elegant jazz trio, a style he perfected starting in the early 1950s by making ample use of space, swing and the upper register of the piano keyboard. Or we think of Ahmad’s more recent abstract recordings that are bold and percussive. In between, there was a brief period when Ahmad recorded on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. There were three in all for the 20th Century Fox label in the 1970s.

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No instrument reminds more of that decade, with its warm, bell-like tones. We can thank CBS for the Fender Rhodes. Invented by Harold Rhodes after World War II as a budget keyboard for returning soldiers, CBS bought Fender in 1965 and kept Harold Rhodes on. Student models were released in the late 1960s, and the familiar 73-key model was first produced in 1970. As the electric instrument rapidly became popular, other models were manufactured. The company was sold to Roland in 1987 before Harold Rhodes bought it back in 1997. Rhodes died in 2000. Today, the Rhodes electric piano is sold by Rhodes Piano.

Ahmad’s first studio album featuring the Fender Rhodes was Ahmad Jamal ’73, on which he was accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Richard Evans. It’s a masterpiece that was in sync with the soul-jazz times. I’ve always viewed this album as a concept recording, to be heard from beginning to end. Every song is beautifully articulated, and the album features a few hits of the day, including War’s The World Is a Ghetto; Stevie Wonder’s Superstition; The Stylistics’ Children of the Night, by Thom Bell and Linda Creed; and Ratwani Za Yemeni’s Sustah, Sustah.

The second album Ahamd recorded mostly on the Fender Rhodes was Jamalca (1974). He was backed by Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser (b), Brian Grice and Frank Gant (d), and Marilyn Haywood, Vivian Haywood, Jimmy Spink, Morra Stewart and Charles Colbert (vcl) along with an orchestra. The Stylistics’ Ghetto Child by Thom Bell and Linda Creed opens the album and includes Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye; Leon Sylvers’ Misdemeanor; and Johnny Mandel’s Suicide Is Painless from M*A*S*H.

The third and final Rhodes album by Ahmad was Jamal Plays Jamal (1974), which featured six original compositions. Here he switched between the Fender Rhodes and the piano. Ahmad was backed by Jamil Nasser (b), Frank Gant (d) and Azzedin Weston (congas).

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Ahmad Jamal is still active today. His most recent album is Ahmad Jamal: Marseille, which you can hear at Spotify. To read my interview with Ahmad for the WSJ, go here.

JazzWax tracks: All three of the albums in my post were never released in the digital format, but can hear all three in their entirety: For Ahmad Jamal ’73, go here; for Jamaica, go here; and for One, go here.

JazzWax clips: Here are clips from each of the albums mentioned above:

Here’s The World Is a Ghetto

The World Is a Ghetto

Here’s Suicide Is Painless, the M*A*S*H theme…

Suicide Is Painless

And here’s Swahililand


Here’s Ahmad playing Clavinet on Steely Dan’s Black Cow from his One album in 1978…

Black Cow