Ahmad Jamal, Argo 5504, 1965
Jazz is not for 45s.
Prior to the introduction of the 45 rpm and LP formats in the late ‘40s, jazz was recorded and heard on 78s, and there is still no better way to listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, or Django Reinhardt. Then, the LP came along and changed the way people listened to jazz and changed the way jazz artists delivered their music. Monk, Mingus, Miles, and other lights of the ‘50s and ’60s created albums of songs, mostly longer than a 78 or 45 side allowed, that flowed and created a sustained mood. In the CD and streaming eras, the LP format is still the way to listen to jazz.
Yes, there’ve been some jazz instrumental singles that charted in the 45 era. Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (written by band-member Joe Zawinul) made it to #11 Billboard in 1967, and Cannonball had a couple of charting singles before that one and a couple after. It stands on its own as a powerful 45, compacting a succession of dramatic tension-release waves into a three-plus-minute live performance captured nicely—if enhanced somewhat in post-production—on record.
Ramsey Lewis did Cannon even better, with a whole string of moderate hits and a couple of blockbusters, “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On, Sloopy.” All of these songs fall into the funky-groove mode, and they all were also big vocal hits by pop singers. “Feeling Good” meets all of these criteria—except that it wasn’t an instrumental hit.
“Feeling Good” started out in Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Ahmad Jamal transforms it. His piano pattern is hypnotic, the bass punctuation keeps things going, the drums never intrude. There’s space. It’s the kind of groove song that could go on and on, but it’s just perfect under the length restrictions of the 45. (“Leave them wanting more”—advice quite a few jazz performers might’ve benefited from.) I always sigh immediately after Ahmad and the band hit the final beat. I haven’t heard the album the song appears on, The Roar of the Greasepaint–which covers of all of the songs in the musical–but it’s the closer. Perfect.
In the same year of Jamal’s recording, Nina Simone put it on her I Put a Spell on You album, and that’s the version most people remembered—at least until Michael Buble did it decades later. Many others have covered it, from Traffic to Lauryn Hill.
As much as I love Nina Simone, and as strong as this number is in her body of work, I keep coming back to Ahmad Jamal’s combo and their understated and entrancing recording.