- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ask Ahmad Jamal about his musical roots, and he won’t mention familiar places such as Chicago or New York, although he has left his stamp on both of these. Instead, he talks about his hometown.

“There are very few parallels to Pittsburgh,” says the veteran jazz pianist, who opened at Blues Alley on Monday and will appear there through tomorrow, plus do a special New Year’s Eve show featuring the Ahmad Jamal Trio and the Keter Betts Memorial Band.

Despite a resume that includes performances around the world and collaborations with a number of jazz greats, Mr. Jamal still likes to cite his hometown heroes.

“Gene Kelly, Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey, and Lorin Maazel are all from Pittsburgh,” he says. “I sold newspapers to Billy Strayhorn’s family.”

As a child, he went with his sister to hear Duke Ellington at the old Stanley Theater. By the age of 22, he was already performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the Duke Ellington 1952 concert that also featured Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie.

“It was unforgettable,” he says. “One of the best ever.”

He has been playing Blues Alley, the place he calls “the most famous American jazz hall in Europe,” for decades.

His light-fingered approach to the piano has evolved over the years, with an increasingly complex and layered approach that can revitalize familiar pieces such as “Billy Boy” or “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” His recording of “Poinciana” on “Live at the Pershing” remains a jazz landmark that has influenced numerous musicians, among them Miles Davis.

“Really, every recording is live,” he says. “but the ones that are done on location have a special energy.”

Just don’t expect to hear him at this location around midnight on New Year’s Eve. The musician ensures that he will be off during those crazy hours between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

“I had enough of that when I was a kid,” he says.

Meanwhile, tradition of another sort will be in evidence at the Kennedy Center tonight when kora player Mamadou Diabate takes the Millennium Stage for a solo turn on the instrument that has been likened to something between a harp and a flamenco guitar.

Just nominated for a Grammy for his solo album, “Behmanka,” the West African-born musician is still coming to grips with the new interest in his music.

“It took about a day for me to believe it was real,” he says. “I never believed that people living in the U.S. would be interested in such a strong traditional recording.”

Mr. Diabate hails from a long line of griots, or storytellers, called “jelis” by the Manding people of Mali, where he was born. Such men are the historians of their people, combining music, oratory and poetry to produce tales of heroes, struggles and everyday life. Many concern the Malian king who consolidated the empire back in the 13th century.

“The songs of Sunjata are very celebrated,” says Mr. Diabate. “But each griot family has their own history, so the songs are different. They look at history from the inside, from the experience of their ancestors.”

By the age of 6, Mr. Diabate was already learning to play the 21-stringed kora from his father, who taught him to master the traditional melodies associated with the instrument.

“There are songs for ceremonies and songs about farming,” he explains. “In the more modern age, there are also love songs.”

When still in his teens, Mr. Diabate was touring with his cousin, legendary kora artist Toumani Diabate, who gave him the nickname “Djelika Djan,” meaning “Tall Griot,” which has stayed with him through the years.

Since then, Mr. Diabate has widened the scope of his approach to the instrument through a series of collaborations with other musicians, including Donald Byrd and Taj Mahal. As a member of the group that includes balafonist Balla Kouyate, guitarist Djkorya Kante, and acoustic bassist Noah Jarrett, he regularly performs music infused by jazz and blues as well as the traditional rhythms he learned at home.

The improvisation associated with traditional kora music allows him to push the envelope a bit when he’s trying on more modern rhythms and harmonies.

“There’s always a lot of improvisation on the kora whatever you’re doing,” he says.

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