Khan Jamal “Infinity”

Khan Jamal is one of the best vibraphone and marimba players on the planet. Hell, one of the best to ever live. Infinity has been one of those records of legend that people paid over the moon for, so seeing it beautifully reissued by Jazz Room is cause for celebration (let’s hope Give The Vibes Some is next!). Anyway, this jazz classic is just that: a classic. And when you consider it’s cast of players, it’s a shining beacon of how great Philly’s jazz scene is.

Jamal is a skillful bandleader, bringing along this band featuring Byard Lancaster (side note: I’ve recently become obsessed with his album, My Pure Joy, which is a mind-bending listen), Sunny Murray, Dwight James, Reggie Curry, Omar Hill, Bernard Sammul, and Clifton Burton. That’s a murderers’ row of underrated players. Jamal wastes no time, sliding right into the smooth, buttery grooves of “Nubian Queen,” a brightly-colored piece that can’t help but make you smile. Lancaster’s flute adds a laid back feeling that interplays wonderfully with Jamal’s precise vibraphone runs. Sammul gets in his own shots on piano, taking shots in the mid-section with some stellar solo work that sends Lancaster soaring. Everything about “Nubian Queen” feels so good. It’s one hell of a way to open a record.

It’s not all peaches and cream, though, as there’s a romantic longing running through “Lovely Afternoon.” Jamal knows exactly when to let those notes ring out on the vibraphone for just a split second longer than you’d expect, before dipping back into the fast lane. Sammul almost steals the show, though, with lightning quick arpeggios. It’s tender and sweet whereas the title track goes into headier zones with Lancaster opening up on alto while Jamal skillfully bleeds into the rhythm section.

Where things really catch fire, though, is on the last two tracks, “The Known Unknown” and “The Angry Young Man.” The former couches genius inside crisp, flowing grooves with Sammul pushing everyone into the stratosphere. Jamal is blasting through walls, but Sammul is leading him there. It’s a masterstroke. Reggie Curry’s bass lines are solid throughout, but he ends up going deep on “The Known Unknown,” and sounding massive. It’s a mesmerizing piece of music that moves in a way that draws you into its grasp with Jamal and Sammul as your pilots. 

I’ve heard this record a hundred times in my life, but every time I put it on it surprises me and gets my heart pumping. When the group closes things out on the lightspeed movement of “The Angry Young Man,” (the only piece on Infinity not written by Jamal – it’s by Sammul) it’s life affirming. Jamal plays so fast, backed by Dwight James spitfire drumming in a race to let it all out. Unreal soloing from Sammul brings it through the divide, pounding chords with his left hand while his right dances circles in the sky, until the cacophonous heft of the song trills straight into bone. Incredible, and a fitting conclusion to a titanic album that should be a vital part of the lexicon.