A Few Miles From Memphis
A transplanted Chicagoan by way of Memphis, pianist Harold Mabern gigged with an incredible array of jazz talent during his youth. His colleagues, recounted in the liners to this recent two-fer, read like a VIP list of hard and post-bop talent: Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Frank Strozier, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Art Farmer... I could easily go on, filling the limited word count of this review with a bevy of other names. Suffice it say Mabern’s substantial talents were discovered early. As a consequence of his early bloomer status sessions as a leader became a precious commodity. Fortunately he did find time to front groups and the two albums here point to how well his talents as a sideman translated to the lead.
There’s some overlap between the sessions, but the first sets up a quintet with Mabern’s old Memphis friend George Coleman sharing the frontline with fellow tenor Buddy Terry. Bassist Bill Lee (father to famous film director Spike) and drummer Walter Perkins round out the rhythm section. Perkins and Mabern would also share the spotlight as the Modern Jazz Two (MJT). The strong emphasis is on Mabern-scripted tunes, all of which balance the more soulful predilections of the late-60s era with expansive post-bop structures ripe for improvisation. Coleman responds especially well to the balance and his solos on tunes like the title track straddle gutbucket blowing with subtle modernist leanings. Terry is of an older school, his rotund lines sometimes laced with an odd reverb, but he holds his own in the fast company. Lee and Perkins make for a responsive fit, tugging and twisting at the tempos together and crafting elastic support for the soloists. Mabern defers quite often to the horns, but doesn’t relinquish his marquee role entirely, rolling out steady statements of his own on pieces like “Walkin’ Back” and the Bossa-scented “A Treat for Bea.”
The second date, originally released as Rakin’ and Scrapin’ , trades up Terry’s tenor for the cool burn of Blue Mitchell’s trumpet. There’s also a swap behind the drum kit with the youthful Hugh Walker assuming stick traps duties in place of Perkins. Lee sculpts lines of equal weight here, but he shares less of an affinity with the new drummer. The soul jazz trappings are on more prominent display with an exception being the elegant reading of the original ballad “Such Is Life. Mabern’s infectious title track gets the groove percolating by way of a drawn out blues line. Mitchell digs in first after the unison head, peeling off brassy bent notes atop the plush undercarriage of his partners. Coleman sounds less urgent here, but undiminished in terms of focus. Walker contents himself with keeping accent-rich time.
Mabern even annexes room for an electric-piano propelled take on Norman Whitfield Motown chestnut “Heard It Through the Grapevine” where Walker resorts to a regrettably metronome-like rock beat. In sum it’s the lesser of the two dates, but Mitchell’s sassy solos nearly even the score. Mabern would shortly join Lee Morgan’s quintet and create more history with the ensemble’s monumental stand at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. The seeds of his expansive solos in that context lie right here in two albums made an even greater bargain by their opportune pairing.
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Tracks: A Few Miles From Memphis*/ Walkin’ Back*/ A Treat For Bea*/ Syden Blue*/ There’s a Kind of Hush*/ B&B*/ To Wane*/ Rakin’ and Scrapin’/ Such is Life/ Aon/ I Heard it Through the Grapevine/ Valerie.
Personnel: Harold Mabern- piano; George Coleman- tenor saxophone; Buddy Terry- tenor saxophone; Bill Lee- bass; Walter Perkins- drums; Blue Mitchell- trumpet; Hugh Walker- drums. Recorded: March 11* & December 23, 1968, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.