1. Comme Ci, Comme Ça
3. Never Never Land
5. Ahmad's Blues
7. I Like to Recognise the Tune
8. I'm Alone With You
9. Sophisticated Gentleman
10. Volga Boatmen
11. On Green Dolphin Street
12. How About You?
13. I Just Can't See for Looking
14. Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year
15. Beat Out One
17. Easy to Remember
18. Jim Loves Sue
19. I Wish I Knew
20. Ahmad's Blues
Ahmad Jamal - Piano
Israel Crosby - Bass (tracks 1-19, 21)
Vernel Fournier - Drums (tracks 1-9, 21)
Strings conducted and arranged by Joe Kennedy (tracks 1-9)
Walter Perkins - Drums (tracks 10-19)
Ray Crawford - Guitar (track 20)
Eddie Calhoun - Bass (track 20)
The picture on the front cover suggests that this album was recorded at some swish penthouse nightclub, but in fact it was taped at the Nola Penthouse Studios in New York - or, at least, the first nine tracks were. Because here we have a CD comprising two original LPs. The first was recorded in 1959; the second - originally entitled Count 'Em 88 - in 1956.
The Penthouse CD has my favourite line-up of the trio from Ahmad's early years, with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums. This was the trio that made the famous live recordings at the Pershing and the Alhambra which established Jamal as a jazz musician to reckon with. Unfortunately, the Penthouse session backs Jamal's trio with a lush string orchestra, which tends to restrict the trio's invention and occasionally gets in their way. For instance, in Never Never Land, the trio does very well on its own for the first chorus until the orchestra breaks in, shattering the placid mood. The strings quieten down again and even sound appropriate behind Israel Crosby's short bass solo. I'm Alone With You makes Ahmad sound like a cocktail pianist looking for spaces between the dominating strings.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of those passages which made Jamal's trio so distinctive. In Hoagy Carmichael's little-known song Ivy, Vernel Fournier sets up the hypnotic Latin rhythm (with cymbal off-beats and scurrying tomtoms) which was such a feature of Ahmad's hit, Poinciana. The first of two versions of Ahmad's Blues strolls along stealthily. And the brisk I Like to Recognise the Tune lets Vernel Fournier off the leash and allows him to exchange fours with piano and then strings.
The other LP, Count 'Em 88, was by the trio format, although Vernel Fournier's characterful drumming is replaced by Walter Perkins' less distinctive style. But Israel Crosby is still present, supplying a continuously steady bass. The recording of Volga Boatmen sounds rather foggy. The sound quality improves slightly for On Green Dolphin Street, where Ahmad juggles with the phrasing and plays about at the very top of the keyboard.
Other outstanding tracks include How About You, in which Ahmad suggests the melody instead of stating it outright. I Just Can't See for Lookin' reveals the delicacy of Jamal's touch. Crosby and Perkins both shine in their solos on Easy to Remember. Jim Loves Sue and I Wish I Knew are good examples of Jamal's economy.
The last two tracks are alternative versions of compositions by Jamal which were on the Penthouse album but are performed here without the string accompaniments. Ahmad's Blues is from 1952 and Seleritus from 1958. They both prove that Ahmad's trio could do very well without orchestral backing.
Although the recorded sound is excellent on the transfer of the Penthouse
LP, the Count 'Em 88 sound is decidedly boxy. This is a pity,
as most Ahmad Jamal recordings are to be treasured - and even this
one is worth having, despite the flaws.