Harold Mabern, Mabern Plays Mabern
by Ferell Aubre
Harold Mabern is one of jazz’s most enduring and brilliantly skillful pianists working in jazz today. He was born in Memphis, a city that produced saxophonists George Coleman and Charles Lloyd, pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., and trumpeter Booker Little. His long career has seen him a hero of the 1960s hardbop scene, performing and recording with many of its finest artists. Only in recent years has he begun to garner appreciation for his long-running legacy in jazz and the understated power of his talent. During his over a half-century on the scene as sideman and leader, he has played and recorded with such greats as Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis, just to name a few. “I was never concerned with being a leader, I just always wanted to be the best sideman I could be. Be in the background so you can shine through.” Mabern Plays Mabern is Mabern’s 27th recording as a leader, picked from three live performance dates in January 2018. Those recording documents the master pianist, then 81, in prime form, functioning as an inspired soloist, attentive accompanist, melodic interpreter, and crafty tunesmith. Unfortunately, the release is posthumous because Harold Mabern died on September 17, 2019, at the age of 83.
Opening with Mabern’s original composition that he recorded with Lee Morgan “Mr. Johnson,” which was initially recorded on Morgan’s album The Procrastinator. Mabern’s solo piano intro is fluid and shows his natural ability to effortlessly spin melodies. Taken at a medium-up tempo, the melody is played with grace and energy. The sextet is in full swing mode as the waltz turns to the soloist statements. Saxophonist Eric Alexander is up; first, his tone and lines are muscular as the ensemble works together to build his solo. Trombonist Steve Davis takes over with his bone in high expressive mode. His lines dart in and out of the harmony as drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber keep a deep swing-waltz feel. Mabern is an interactive accompanist, always listening, supporting, and helping the soloist build.
Mabern’s “The Lyrical Cole-Man” (from Pisces Calling) contains some of the best playings of the date. The intricate melody is Mabern’s tone parallel to George Coleman. Two significant solo sections by Alexander and Marbern deliver an outstanding music experience. Especially Mabern, he is in top form here. He never losses focus as he plays endless post-bop ideas and explores the harmony with colorful substitutions and side-stepping. The energy of the live date can be heard, too, making the solo that much more powerful.
Mabern Plays Mabern is a must add to any collection. Mabern proves that at 81 (at the time of the recording), his fluidity, creative cohesion, and expressiveness are in full bloom. There is nothing more powerful than the heart of creativity, and indeed Mabern exhibited that spirit on a fitting tribute to his own music. His influence on musicians will be felt for many decades to come. A treasure to add to any collection. Thank you, Mr. Mabern.