Harold Mabern at Smoke, NYC

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[Mabern] said...that Elvis got his hip-swinging style from Mabern's piano teacher, the legendary, pyrotechnical jazz pianist Phineas Newborn.
Harold Mabern
New York City
December 22, 2007

Harold Mabern performed with his piano trio three nights at Smoke, on New York's Upper West Side, the weekend before Christmas, 2007. The one-time sideman for luminaries such as Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan and John Coltrane was accompanied by a suited white bassist and a white crew-cutted drummer. Former Mabern cohort tenor saxophonist George Coleman was in attendance, though he did not play (he preceded Wayne Shorter as tenorist in the Miles Davis Quintet, in the early 1960s).

The set that was ending when I arrived was rounded out with "My Favorite Things." Mabern has always played a mildly eclectic bunch of standards and pop tunes on his later albums, from the 1960s classic "What The World Needs Now" to the Sesame Street "Theme" (itself very Charlie Parker-like), and this night was no exception.

The next set (there were three sets, featuring some variation in the numbers played) contained seven or eight numbers, but they were long pieces. After thanking the club for bringing in the piano, a Steinway ("Thanks for organizing the Steinway. If you can't play that you can't play anything!"), Mabern began with a sixties bop/funk mood-setter. He followed it with a distinctive version of "A Merry Little Christmas," played with crisp elegance yet earthy fire. As he told me later, the blues is behind everything he plays, whatever the apparent style of the tune. Taking the microphone after "A Merry Little Christmas," he said he thought the tune was "the most beautiful Christmas song around." He clearly loves melody, and during the set he occasionally threw in quotes from other tunes, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" during "A Merry Little Christmas."

Mabern is known for former collaborations with, among others, "hard bop" trumpeter Lee Morgan (primarily on the Blue Note LP The Gigolo, and evidence of this genre of jazz cropped up in several numbers. The pianist continues to have a fresh style while bringing in the the 1950s-60s blend of gospel, blues and funk that characterized much of the Bobby Timmons/Horace Silver/Herbie Hancock music of the time, but with added classical power. His large hands easily handled the octaves he played in the right hand, and the ringing end to song, in the right hand, became a signature of the performance.

Later numbers in the set included George Gershwin's "They All Laughed" (with a brief quote of "Anything Goes" from Cole Porter's show of the same name) and "Dat Dere" by Bobby Timmons. While addressing the audience toward the end of the set, Mabern suddenly interrupted his speaking to launch into an unaccompanied version of Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You," which he sang as "We get a kick out of you," clearly identifying the audience with the second-person pronoun.

After the gig, I asked him if he approved of the term "hard bop." He said that he didn't like labels, explaining "I'm really about the blues." Like alto sax master Charlie Parker, the blues underpins everything he plays.

Born in 1936 in Memphis a year after Elvis Presley, he remembers that Elvis used to drive the ice truck ("people didn't have refrigerators in those days," he explained). He said also (quite surprisingly) that Elvis got his hip-swinging style from Mabern's piano teacher, the legendary, pyrotechnical jazz pianist Phineas Newborn.

His favorite songwriter? He replied first Gershwin, then quickly added Cole Porter, whom he said was brilliant because of both his lyrics and music (George had his brother Ira supply the lyrics). Finally, he rested on Richard Rodgers (Rodgers/Hart and Rodgers/Hammerstein) because "you think you have worked him out, but then something changes and the music goes somewhere else."

Fusing the always fashionable bop/funk school with the classic American Songbook, Harold Mabern remains extremely relevant: younger rock bands and music writers should listen to this musical giant, as their music will surely improve if they do. He has a big and commanding style, with tremendous appeal. Another listener of these performances asked himself why he had not discovered Mabern before. Discover the big hands and richly melodic, ringing sound of Harold Mabern for yourself.

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