Khan Jamal, born in 1946 in Florida, began playing the vibes at the age of 18 and has been a fixture on the Philadelphia jazz scene for many years. This record, released by Porter Records in 2008, is a reissue of the original 2002 release by Jambrio, but the music dates to a studio recording session in 1989.
The music overall is cerebral and taxing for the listener who needs comfortable forms or familiar patterns. A far cry from vibraphonists Gary Burton or Lionel Hampton, Jamal's music is modestly avant-garde; not way, way out but far enough away from conventions that the listener without a bit of a taste for free jazz will find it unsatisfying. The bookend cuts on the record, "Professor B.L." and "Cool," are illustrative of the more serious avant-garde tendencies on the record. On "Dansk Morn" Jamal plays the vibes more like chimes with a few bursts of improv. Solos are more like sound effects than melodic constructions, even though they hew to the harmonic structure of the piece. He uses circular, repetitive patterns as the building blocks for his solos, rather than trying to string together a linear line. "Innocence" is like a free exploration of a Jewish lament, morphing into a dance, then back to an open-time lament. Jamal's music here would be more comfortable in an underground jazz setting than a mainstream club.
Curiously, even though much of the music is free from adherence to standard jazz norms, the overall effect is a sameness that detracts from the creativity of the artists. It's like being in the midst of several different counter-cultural protest groups; their very "counter-cultural-ness" becomes repetitive and, after awhile, banal.
Mr. Jamal is not without chops...he tears off some blisteringly fast scales and arpeggios. In other moments he plays delicately, exploiting the unique "vibrating harmonies" that are the namesake of his instrument. But his technical mastery is not enough, unfortunately, to pull Cool into the realm of first-rate modern jazz.