Ahmad Jamal gives “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” the cool jazz treatment

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Ahmad Jamal continues performing after more than 50 years. The single “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” from his album, “Marseille” uses cool jazz to interpret the song’s feeling.

Ahmad Jamal and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

Ahmad Jamal is an American pianist, composer, and bandleader from Pittsburgh. He started playing piano as a small child and was a professional musician by the time he reached his teens.

One of the reasons I had for wanting to hear Jamal’s take on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is because it is paired with “Summertime” as medley when Mahalia Jackson performs it. Of course, Gospel music and instrumental jazz might have little to do with each other, except for the roles they played in the culture of black Americans.

Jackson’s version is almost the inverse of Jamal’s. In the Gospel version, Jackson’s voice fills the soundscape, and whatever instrumentation she has is in the background. I am not sure if that was purposeful or not, or if it was just a quirk of the production values.

Jamal, on the other hand, gives the song the full instrumental treatment. The mood jumps with energy, and very little of what I thought was integral to the original remains.

About “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

As far as any research can bear out, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” or just “Motherless Child,” has its roots in American slavery, wherein mothers and children could be sold away from each other.

The vocal version of the song is ideal for mezzo-soprano and alto singers, in my opinion. The lower notes need to have some power to them, and all of the singer should be able to bend all notes with expression. The movement is in long passages that require a great deal of air. The mood can be described as sad or despairing. None of the vocal versions I could find interprets the song differently. The song has been recorded by such music legends as Van Morrison, Odetta and Eric Clapton.

Ahmad Jamal’s version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

The piano line is sprightly and contains the most movement or energy. The upright bass adds gravity to the piece, and the drums attack and relent just in time. The piano line sounds “picked,” as opposed to gently rolling into each other.

The song works as an example of cool jazz because of its structure and rhythm. Cool jazz is in opposition to bebop and its breakneck pace. Jamal’s version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sounds mid-tempo, with faster portions worked in that build texture.

In various places, listeners can hear the chorus to the vocal version picked out in piano notes. The lighter piano notes help the musicians move from one part of the song’s structure to another, as if they were guides.

Jamal pays homage to black American history and culture with his version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He takes risks with tempo and his overall approach, but with more than five decades’ worth of experience, Jamal turns the song steeped in sadness into an avant-garde history lesson.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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