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Jazz Review Mabern's got the blues, marvellously

Harold Mabern
Right on Time and To Love and Be Loved

HAROLD MABERN is part of that great tradition of pianists from the southern city US city of Memphis, which also birthed Phineas Newborn, James Williams and Donald Brown.

Mabern, born in 1936, grew up wanting to be a drummer and he tells how he used to beat on cans as a child. It was then that he heard a young girl playing the song I Stuck My Dollar in the Mud on the piano, which inspired him to teach himself the instrument and join his high school band. He met local jazz eminences like saxophonist George Coleman, trumpeter Louis Smith and the prodigious Newborn, which propelled him into the heart of the music.

He moved from Chicago to New York in 1959 where he worked with an eclectic array of jazz luminaries from Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughan to Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, JJ Johnson and Sonny Rollins.

He became widely admired and respected among his contemporaries and a whole generation of hard-bop masters, made some fine albums, including Rakin' and Scrapin' and Wailin' of 1970 and frequently recorded outside the US on the Japanese DIW and Toronto-based Sackville labels.

His strongly blues-influenced, rolling piano sound is still very much alive in his live performances and characterises his recent albums on the Smoke label. Right on Time, cut in 2013 at the Smoke jazz club in New York, features him and his regular trio, including drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber.

There's a powerful drive and rhythm in the galloping opener Dance With Me, which is followed by the Miles Davis/Victor Feldman tune Seven Steps to Heaven, which Mabern regularly played with Davis when he was part of his band in 1962. The dexterity and sheer speed of his hands along the keys is breathtaking and Farnsworth steps in for a sharp solo.

Then it is Ellington and a very bluesy version of Don't Get Around Much Anymore, featuring Webber's earthen bass. Coltrane is remembered in the Mabern variant of My Favourite Things, but it is Edward Lee who is the apex of the album. Dedicated to the pianist's old confrere, trumpeter Lee Morgan — described by Mabern as “a true musical genius, there was nothing about the trumpet that he couldn't explain” — the Memphis man's tribute to his late Philadelphia bandmate is a truly romping elegy, infused with the fraternal, subliminal energy that has always rampaged within Morgan's horn artistry.

Mabern's rendition of the beautifully melodic To You, written by that other prime trumpeter Thad Jones, shows him as a true balladeer and, as he continues into The Nearness of You, the gentleness of his touch on the keys is truly moving. He signs off with Cherokee, dedicated to his old Memphis tenor-saxophone comrade George Coleman, which is full of fire and verve.

Last year, Mabern recorded To Love and Be Loved as the leader of a sextet. On drums is another Miles Davis veteran, Jimmy Cobb, and also in the line-up is powerhouse tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, young trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, bassist Nat Reeves and percussionist Cyro Baptista.

They move off with the title tune which Mabern calls “a medium up-tempo samba-slash-bossa nova,” with Baptista's Latin drums in full fettle and Alexander's Dexter Gordon-like brawny tone. On Morgan's tune The Gigolo, Hendrix blows in harmony with Alexander before launching into a searing solo and Alexander's own fiery solo seems to provoke Mabern into an unbridled chorus. McCoy Tyner's hurtling Inner Glimpse has more pulsating Mabern and Hendrix's solo is full of cutting phrases while the 88-year-old Cobb shows his decades-old mastery.

Alexander and Mabern combine with a serene lyricism for My Funny Valentine, while Alexander's composition The Iron Man is taken as a romp, with Mabern prancing on his keys. Davis's So What is a gift for the sextet, particularly Hendrix who rockets into his solo, while Alexander plays like a real horn monster.

Mabern plays with an octogenarian power all through this album and finds his solo apogee on the Bobby Timmons tune Dat Dere, where he blows his own southern piano blues storm.




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