Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
If there’s a psychiatrist out there who wants to delve into the connection between weather and music, I’d be happy to lie on your couch. Deep in my Canadian psyche is the need to hear extremely buoyant–yet-meditative instrumental jazz on late-autumn days. Pianist Keith Jarrett’s 1973 album Solo Concerts: Bremen / Lausanne is the ideal way to scratch that itch. That stems from the first time I saw Jarrett in concert: a crisp, fall night in 1975, which gave way to an exceptionally snowy morning. I woke to it with his music still in my head.
Autumn 2022 found me wanting to take some long walks in the woods near my home, but with no sign of early snow I didn’t want to waste my annual Jarrett deep dive.
Fortunately, I found an ideal substitute: a ravishing new collection of live recordings by pianist Ahmad Jamal, expertly recorded at Seattle’s legendary Penthouse club in the mid-1960s. Not only is the music engaging and buoyant—ideal for my forest excursions—it signals the next step along a career path I’ve been tracking for a number of years.
That career belongs to Zev Feldman, a passionate music lover I first encountered years ago at a jazz conference in New York City. Since then, Feldman has delivered gem after gem from the private collections of musicians, their families, former club operators, and others. The self-proclaimed Jazz Detective has worked hard to shine light on hitherto-unknown performances by musicians like Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, and Charles Lloyd—and has set new standards for financial fairness and sonic restoration along the way.
While Feldman’s projects have garnered awards and accolades, they’ve never been wholly his thing; he has continued to work with a variety of labels to get the music to the public. Now, with the launch of Deep Digs Music Group and the Jazz Detective imprint, he says: “This new arrangement gives me an opportunity to work on even more creative projects I’m very passionate about. There are a lot of projects that I’ve come across over the years. I look in the rearview mirror and see them going away as I keep driving. This gives me a chance to go back, pick these projects back up, and see them through. It also gives me an opportunity to work even more with the various archives that I’ve been fortunate to have developed close relationships with over the years.”
Feldman, who began his career with Polygram in 1994, has cycled through numerous labels during his career, and the fact that he continues to produce archival work with a range of record companies reflects how broadly respected, and liked, he is throughout the business.
“This new endeavor is not meant to replace anything I’m currently working on,” he says. “I’m still working with a host of other labels, most notably as co-president of Resonance Records and a consulting archival producer for Blue Note Records. My dear friends, Jordi Soley and Carlos Agustin from Elemental Music in Barcelona, have been extremely supportive of work I’ve been doing. It was ten years ago that we met and worked on releases from Jimmy Giuffre, Red Garland, Art Pepper, and 25 Xanadu Records reissues. [Jordi, Carlos, and I] have very aligned personal tastes in music, and they have been great champions of mine.”
As an inaugural project, Feldman couldn’t have done much better than this music by one of the most-overlooked seminal artists in jazz history. Revered by Miles Davis for his ability to swing in any context, at any tempo, and his lithe sensitivity at the keyboard, Jamal was seldom considered among the giants when the jazz history of the ’50s and ’60s was being written.
Born 92 years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jamal rose to prominence while leading the house trio at Chicago’s Pershing Club in the late ’50s. His recording At the Pershing: But Not for Me (1958) stayed on the popular music charts for more than two years, but his fame and commercial success cut two ways. Some critics scoffed at his mainstream melodic stance, and while Davis’s endorsement might’ve provided a boost to Jamal’s reputation among “serious” fans, the pianist had used his sudden fame to open his own club in Chicago and take four years away from performing.
By the early ’60s, when jazz listeners were pondering the atonal explorations of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and following Davis’s journey into less rhythmically structured territory, Jamal was re-establishing himself in New York City.
He resumed touring in 1963, and June that year found him fronting a trio featuring bassist Richard Evans and drummer Chuck Lampkin at The Penthouse club in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. As these discs show, it was a popular stop for Jamal: he returned—with Jamil Nasser replacing Evans—in March and April of the following year and then again in March 1965. By October ’65, Vernel Fournier had replaced Lampkin, and the final show at The Penthouse comes from September 1966, by which time Frank Gant had replaced Fournier.
Penthouse owner Charlie Puzzo was one of those club owners who was passionate about the sanctity of the live experience, so he invested in good recording equipment and actively shushed patrons who made too much noise during performances. It’s little wonder that artists like Coltrane, Montgomery, and Davis loved to play there.
Jazz Detective’s debut releases are Emerald City Nights: Live at The Penthouse, 1963–1964 (DDJD 001) and Emerald City Nights: Live at The Penthouse, 1965–1966 (DDJD 002); more than 180 minutes of music recorded at The Penthouse. The raw material, says Feldman, is drawn from a number of homemade CDs that were loaned to him by Puzzo’s son a number of years ago to be considered for release.
“I knew Mr. Jamal (who is now 92) had a reputation for being very selective and particular about which recordings he would allow to be released,” Feldman says. As a result, he kept the recordings to himself until he happened to cross paths with Jamal’s manager in 2021, and arranged for Jamal to assess them.
“Mr. Jamal went through all of the music and reviewed everything thoroughly. There were a few things he didn’t want to come out, and I respect that, but for the most part we were able to present complete sets of music and make it work on LP sides. To me, it was a Holy Grail find. The music is so great, and it was captured at an interesting part of his career. The sidemen are all wonderful musicians, as well.”
Feldman’s point about the sidemen really resonates for the trio featuring Lampkin on drums. Perhaps better known for his three-year tenure with Dizzy Gillespie earlier in the ’60s, Lampkin left music later that decade to become one of the first Black news anchors on US television. These performances with Jamal showcase a sturdy—but fully in the pocket—percussionist with both the focus and energy to keep the trio moving crisply, but also with a deep reservoir of backup power. Throughout the 131 minutes that feature Lampkin, Jamal calls again and again for some heat from his drummer, and it’s always there.
On song after song, Lampkin displays the kind of intensity Jamal seems to encourage, and together, the three musicians move through their material with practiced precision. There are well-oiled tempo shifts and dynamic fluctuations that add excitement. Jamal seems particularly enamored with driving crescendos with hard stops or unexpected changes that he signals verbally—like a quarterback calling an audible at the line of scrimmage. The pianist liked to go off script, and the dynamic shifts he introduces into his extended solos undercut the criticism that he was a less interesting pianist than the younger players—Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock, for example—who were rising in popularity in the mid-1960s.
The other two drummers—Fournier for two pieces, totaling 18 minutes, and Gant for three others, for about 20 minutes—lend similar support, but neither had the snap that Lampkin brought.
For his part, Nasser remains hand in glove with Jamal throughout. It should prove no surprise to learn that the bassist stayed with Jamal for more than a decade, and continued recording with the pianist into the ’90s.
The music Jamal selected to play over these seven nights reflected his ear for both great compositional bones and the recognition factor. For example, the two 1965 dates with Lampkin leaned heavily on the music Britons Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley had composed for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd, which would open a few weeks later on Broadway. Other performances included a couple of Jamal’s originals, jazz tunes by Bennie Golson and Johnny Hodges, and other popular compositions by writers like Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwin brothers.
Overall, there’s a consistency across these seven sets of music that illustrates the discipline that Jamal brought to any setting. Although, by the mid-1960s, this type of straight-ahead interpretation of show tunes and sturdy jazz compositions was beginning to fall out of favor, Jamal’s bands showed no signs of changing with the times.
After some initial listening through both my desktop rig and my larger system, I decided Jamal’s buoyancy and compelling sense of swing were ideal companions for some spirit-enhancing walks.
Sampling Feldman’s restoration work from the 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV files on the go demanded more than just the sound that would flow naturally from my iPhone, so I reached for the Helm Audio DB12 AAAMP portable headphone amplifier ($179.99 USD) that I wanted to check out. Regular readers of SoundStage! Solo will likely recall that Brent Butterworth reviewed this gear in July 2020.
As Brent noted, Helm followed the road less traveled with the DB12. While companies like AudioQuest, Hidizs, and many others have pushed ahead with DAC-headphone amps as an alternative to expensive portable media players, Helm has left the digital-to-analog transfer to the phone manufacturers. I have to admit, that’s not a road I usually follow, either.
What really caught my eye in Brent’s review was the geeky look of the unit. While headphone dongles have tended toward the compact, sleek style exemplified by my usual AudioQuest DragonFly Red unit, Helm’s DB12 has about as much style as a mid-1970s Volvo. I know there are fans of this chunky, anti-style design, and I never put a car-lover down; so, in that spirit, I decided to take the Helm and Jamal’s trios for some long walks.
On these excursions, I alternated between a set of HiFiMan HE400se over-ear headphones and my 2012-vintage Shure SE535 IEMs.
As Brent noted, the Helm unit has a rated output impedance of 0.3 ohms and power output rated at 111mW into 32 ohms—more than enough to push my ’phones or buds.
The THX Achromatic Audio Amplifier inside is a licensed design that the manufacturer claims to provide “the ultimate, no-compromise headphone audio experience by delivering the world’s highest fidelity audio with infinitesimally low levels of noise, distortion and power consumption.”
For power, the Helm uses an internal, rechargeable battery. Although it’s rated to run for six hours per charge, I found myself getting less time than that; probably due to the lower outdoor temperatures, I imagine. That said, I agree with Brent that it’s a plus that the unit doesn’t sap power from your phone’s battery.
Where we part company is the Helm’s Bass Boost feature, activated through the side-mounted Bass+ switch.
Perhaps it was the relatively “flat” nature of the mid-1960s club recording, or the way Jamal liked his bassists to remain firmly in the pocket. After all, we’re not talking Charles Mingus or Ron Carter here; Evans and Nasser are not in that league and, as noted, Jamal didn’t encourage them to slip outside in the way Mingus, Carter, or any number of more contemporary bassists might. With the Bass Boost set to Off or in the standard position, I found myself missing the drive I had experienced from Jamal’s rhythm section when I played the recordings through my speakers. Sliding over to the Bass+ setting is said to add 6dB, and it really brought the trio to life, regardless of which rhythm section was working the gig. I realize that more complex instrumentation or a more modern approach to recording may well render the boost unnecessary, as Brent found, but it’s the perfect feature for music like this.
That leaves fit and finish as my only knock on the DB12 AAAMP. While the body of the unit appears to be made from aluminum, the three large, rectangular function buttons are plastic, and they got stuck. Constantly. It’s a little thing, but those sticky buttons were an ongoing reminder of the gap between Helm’s prosaic design and the sleek finishes preferred by manufacturers like AudioQuest, Hidizs, or a growing number of others.
Overall, though, I share my colleague’s opinion that the Helm unit is a very convenient solution for getting very good—if not quite great—sound on the go.
. . . James Hale
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.