It's always cool when you get in on the ground floor of something new and exciting. That's how it feels to have spent time delving into the music being documented by a new jazz label. Since 1998, Smoke has been one of the most happening places in Manhattan to take in some live jazz. A bit secluded from other jazz venues as it is on an upper section of Broadway, Smoke nonetheless first made a name for itself back in the early '90s as Augie's. When Frank Christopher and Paul Stache took it over they upped the ante by presenting a space that is warm and welcoming, but also acoustically sound, making it a favorite among New York's finest.
It would be logical that time had come for the club to start documenting some of its live shows for prosperity. Enter Smoke Sessions, a new independent endeavor with the goal of presenting some of the best live jazz from the Big Apple. Keeping things on a small scale, Stache actually engineers the recordings himself and they later mix the results using vintage analog gear. The results sparkle with the kind of intensity you'd expect from a live set with all the intimacy and pinpoint accuracy you get in a studio date.
One of the club's most treasured regulars, pianist Harold Mabern
has the honor of releasing the label's first set and it's a real flag waver. Having worked with bassist John Webber
and drummer Joe Farnsworth
on countless occasions this trio has the ability to turn on a dime and the empathy they share is to be heard throughout.
The set opens with Peter Brown's disco era number entitled "Dance with Me." In Mabern's hands the piece takes on another flavor entirely. He uses a repeated left hand figure of a Silverish quality that gives the whole piece a lilting Eddie Harris type groove. By contrast, his take on "My Favorite Things" is all modal with Tyner inspired runs that Farnsworth boots along tastefully.
The ballads of the set, Thad Jones's "To You" and "The Nearness of You," both evolve with Mabern's delicate flourishes adding much to the charm of each one. He is not one to wallow in sentiment for too long, yet he also sagaciously avoids the pitfall of doubling the time too quickly. Mabern's sunny disposition comes across even his most delicate and profound moments.
The upbeat romp through "Seven Steps to Heaven" might be one of Mabern's best moments on the disc. Furthermore, not to be missed is the stability provided by Webber and Farnsworth, the latter being one the most skilled drummers around when it comes to ridiculously fast tempos. With an ear towards great melodies and changes, Mabern surprises with his inclusion of the theme song from the TV show Lavern & Shirley, "Making Our Dreams Come True." Rounding things out, Mabern gives a fresh coat of paint to such standards as Mancini's "Charade," Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "Cherokee."
At the age of 77, Mabern shows no signs of slowing down. Right On Time
allows one to put themselves upfront, where all the action is, for a stellar recital by one of jazz music's most esteemed elder statesmen. All this, of course, is possible thanks to the new Smoke Sessions without even leaving your house.