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Harold Mabern & Kirk MacDonald: The Creative Process

Jeri Brown By

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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.

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