The Lobero’s still relatively new Steinway grand piano got a thorough workout Thursday night thanks to Ahmad Jamal, the brilliant jazz pianist and composer who has been a Steinway stalwart for some 50 years. Jamal played as a quartet this time out-his longtime collaborator James Cammack on bass, James Johnson III on drums, and Manolo Badrena on percussion-but the effect was at once tighter (as in a trio) and more expansive (as in an orchestra) than most standard jazz quartets. (This may have something to do with the fact that Jamal recently completed a stint as guest artist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis’s big band project in New York.) Throughout the evening, Badrena teased a world of tones and textures out of his percussion kit, while Johnson complemented him with perfectly modulated snare rolls and throbbing, funky mallet work. Cammack and Jamal pushed and pulled at the melody and timing, spreading the groove wide only to let it snap back into place. At 78, Jamal remains a powerful presence at the keyboard, where his hands still glide and stomp at an unrestrained, full-throttle pace. He also is quite commanding when he leans back from his instrument or stands up and walks around, directing the band with sharp cues from a single, insistent left index finger.
Jamal’s music turns up frequently in contemporary hip-hop, and it is easy to hear why. He’s been sampled by De La Soul, Nas, Common, and Kanye West because his syncopations groove in a way that’s both emphatic and instantly memorable. His vamps and crescendos slink with the insistent polyrhythms of funk. Beginning the show with his traditional opener, “Wild Is the Wind/Sing,” Jamal moved from there through a handful of the compositions featured on his most recent recording, It’s Magic, concluding with two related original compositions, “Gyroscope” and “Kaleidoscope.” Among the night’s most memorable numbers was the Jimmy Heath composition “Melodrama,” which got an encyclopedic, orchestral reading. The keys to Jamal’s idiosyncratic genius are his propulsive vamps and his extraordinary ability to improvise successful countermelodies. He’s the Bach of the backbeat, and the Lobero was lucky to receive him on this triumphant tour.