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Harold Mabern & Kirk MacDonald: The Creative Process


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In improvising there is no such thing as a mistake. It’s what you do after you did what you thought was a mistake.
—Harold Mabern
Harold Mabern recently toured through Eastern Canada with a stop at St. Paul's Church as part of the Jazz East performance concert series. His duet concerts with Canadian jazz saxophonist Kirk MacDonald included stops in Montreal, Moncton, Antigonish, and Sydney. Their concerts emphasize standard jazz repertoire, as well as their own original music. Mabern, one of the world's most enduring and dazzlingly skilled pianists, is famous across North America for his hard bop and soulful jazz piano style. Born in 1936 in Memphis, Tennessee, self-taught Mabern was influenced by Phineas Newborn, Jr. and played with some of the greatest musicians in the business including Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Clifford Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Joe Williams, Wes Montgomery, George Coleman and James Moody, and recorded with Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis, to name a few.

In this interview, I asked him about his Afro Blue Smoke album where his work featured singers, and I was curious about how and why he chose to work with stellar vocalists during his career.

All About Jazz: What appealed to me since everybody knows that I'm a singer is that you recorded this project with some singers. Tell me more about your experience and sentiments when working with jazz singers.

Harold Mabern: Well, I only recorded with one—Betty Carter, on her album called Inside Betty Carter. A lot of folks don't know that because they didn't put the musicians' name on it. But I'm on that record with Bob Cranshaw on bass, Roy McCurdy on drums, Kenny Burrell on guitar and myself on piano. I worked with her at Birdland and all the old-timers would come around and check us out.

Somebody must have said or felt that I had an affinity with playing with singers. I did and I do. After that recording I started working with all the singers at Birdland, probably more than any other pianist: Betty Carter, Irene Reid, Dakota Staton, Ernestine Anderson, Gloria Lynne, Johnny Hartman, Arthur Prysock. I worked with about ten different singers at Birdland. When Coltrane decided to record with Johnny Hartman, he got that idea from us 'cause we were working opposite John Coltrane. That's how that came about.

AAJ: In my career I was fortunate to perform one of my favorite songs, "Afro Blue," with Oscar Brown Jr. in Cleveland and to record and perform it at Catalina's in Los Angeles in 2013. Mabern's 2014 album titled Afro Blue Smoke produced by Smoke club owners Paul Stache and Frank Christopher featured singers. I was curious about how it came about and his thoughts on working with singers.

AAJ: Harold, what can you share about that recording? How did that experience affect you as an artist?

HM: When we did that Afro Blue, that wasn't my idea. That was Paul Stache's idea—the club owner. He said "'Hey Babe (Dave), on the next one let's do some with some singers—five singers." So I told him, "I don't know if that is going work 'cause to play with one singer you rehearse five hours for a twenty-five minute gig (laughs). No offense intended, but that's just the truth. So here we were talking about five [singers]. I'm quite proud of them because we did that record, that whole Afro Blue with no rehearsal. No rehearsing. Not even a run through. I felt that record was misconstrued 'cause when you put a record like that out with no rehearsal and for horns... I would play on the piano and Eric Alexander would write out a little part, you know. That record should have won a Grammy, or a Tammy (laugh). It was highly underappreciated and overlooked. Seriously, you know sometimes you have to give yourself a little skin. Now when you look back on that you say—something ain't right. I say the consiprisy sat in on that. You probably don't know what a consiprisy is. It is a musical conspiracy. Tony Reedus is the one who came up with that word.

AAJ: Oh, so consiprisy, as in a musical conspiracy.

HM: Yes. Having said that I am quite proud of it 'cause when Norah Jones came in she was the last one to come aboard. And to this day I don't know what kind of deal the club owner made with them 'cause you're talking about Alexis Cole, Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter and Jane Monheit. Gregory Porter hadn't quite made it big then but he was on the way. That's a lot. That's a big budget. To this day I don't know what kind of financial deal they made. But maybe it was because I was a kind of likable person that they wanted to be a part of that. So, when Nora Jones came on board I had two tunes, and I said, "What do you wanna do?" And she said "Let me call you back." She called back and said, "Let's do "Don't Misunderstand" just with piano and voice, and "Fools Rush In." So, I said "You can't outdo what Sinatra had done, so how do we do this a little bit different?" I thought for a minute and told the drummer to play a different beat and that's how that came out with "Fools Rush In." So, really having said that, I'm really quite proud of that CD 'cause I guess it was something that we did with love.

AAJ: When and why did you start playing?

HM: It sounds corny, but I didn't choose music. I'm self-taught. It chose me. I never had the pleasure or the luxury of playing a Chopin etude. So one day I heard this girl playing a song on all the black keys on I stuck my dolly in the mud. I learned how to play that. Then there were other musicians like Dee Dee Bridgewater's father, a big band director, who showed me a few chords and then I just took it from there. When I moved to Chicago I really got into it seriously. So I often say mine is a God-given talent.

AAJ: Who were some of your influential teachers? Who was your first teacher? Other teachers (orchestration, comping and chord voicings)?

HM: Well, in the high school marching band I played the baritone sax euphonium. And to this day I still don't know how I learned to play music, seriously, because I am solely self-taught. Some kind of way I was taught how to read a quarter note, you know, and I played that in the marching band. And then we had like a little jazz orchestra and they taught me a few chords and I was able to read and play chord changes...

AAJ: Aside from the phenomenal Phineas Newborn Jr., which other famous musicians have you learned from?

HM: Well, I would say, it sounds like a blanket statement, but everybody I played with I learned from...a little something.

AAJ: Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

HM: My biggest motivator is my closest friend. His name is Frank Strozier. Because when we were kids and didn't know what we were doing, he always had the mindset of trying to be better. He always had that kind of motivation that spirited himself and he passed it onto me. I really owe it to him that he saw something in me that I didn't or couldn't see in myself and he inspired me to keep going.

AAJ: How do you handle mistakes during a performance?

HM: Well, we've all made what we call mistakes. The only mistakes in improvisation, as far as I'm concerned is that there is no such thing as a mistake. The mistake is only in your follow thru. If you play something and it doesn't come out the first time, you follow it through with what you intended to do. A mistake is only when...say you are playing a G natural and it is supposed to be a G sharp, that is a mistake. But in improvising there is no such thing as a mistake. It's what you do after you did what you thought was a mistake. I don't know if that makes sense.

AAJ: And what about you, Kirk? How do you handle mistakes during a performance?

Kirk MacDonald: Well, I try, as Harold said, I try and use those ideas. I feel. I actually take pride in the fact that I am up there messing things up because it means that I'm trying things, you know. And so I've admired players who were in the moment, and really trying to deal with music in the moment, in improvising and things like that. And so I try to use it. And also, you know, you've just gotta move on. It's an imperfect art form. It's spontaneous. And that's part of the music.

AAJ: Kirk, I noted that as a saxophonist and composer you often grant your compositions to arrangers?

KM: Yeah I've done some of that. Most of the material that I've recorded has been of original music. And that's where I've had other people either orchestrate or rearrange. And I have [worked with] two very different kinds of writers. Joe Sullivan from Montreal is more of an orchestrator and one is more of a composer. The other guy is Terry Promane. I've also had other people write my music unsolicited for big band.

AAJ: When did the idea of putting your own big band book come about?

KM: I had a number of charts and I {thought} that I wanted to develop a book. I have done three big band CDs in this time. The first one was nominated for a Juno in 2011 and that was a mix of Joe and Terry's arrangements of my compositions. And then the second CD was basically an orchestration of a composition of mine called Family Suite. It was an 11-movement suite that I had recorded previously for quartet. That big band orchestration ran about sixty-five minutes. Then, in my second-latest double CD I wanted to feature Joe's writing and so I commissioned him to about five compositions, and we had some existing charts. Now I have a book of probably five or six hours of big band music of my own.

AAJ: That's exceptional. Have you two worked in the past?

KM: We did a CD of mine about four years ago, Vista Obscura, which won the Juno award in 2015. And since then we've managed to do some things together. We did a CD release in New York a couple years back, and I think this is our third Canadian tour that we've done. We did something last year and the year previous to that and we've been able to get at it a little more often. Previous to that it had been about 25—27 years since we had worked together.

AAJ: Wow, what a lovely artistic history. Is there anything that either of you would like to add?

KM: Well, I'll just add that it's just a pleasure to work with Harold.

AAJ: Harold, one thing that I noticed is that you and I have the same birthday. March 20.

HM: Really?

AAJ: Yes. What are you going to do on your birthday?

HM: Well, I hope that I'll be here for my birthday. No, seriously. I just give thanks to the most high for seeing another birthday. You know birthdays are important. But every day is a birthday. That's the way I look at it.

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