“How many people can do anything at age 81 as fast as they did it at 29?” That question is posed by Michael Mabern, son of the late great Harold Mabern, in the liners for Mabern Plays Coltrane, a live date from Smoke Jazz Club’s 2018 John Coltrane Festival. The reference is to Mabern at age 29 playing with Wes Montgomery in the 1965 European Tour but this writer, having listened many times to Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse where Mabern was the pianist, can attest that Mabern is as facile on this date as he was at age 34 too. Mabern felt such a special reverence for Coltrane that age was not going to slow him down a bit. Drummer Joe Farnsworth described Mabern as a vortex through which everything flowed on this date, further calling the sessions intense and saying that just having Mabern on the stage elevated the spirit of the music tenfold. The other band members playing in this spirited session are Vincent Herring (alto saxophone), Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone), Steve Davis (trombone), and John Webber (bass) – in essence, the Harold Mabern Quartet plus two (Herring and Davis).
These recordings at Smoke Jazz Club also produced two earlier albums: The Iron Man, where Mabern was primarily an interpreter, and Mabern Plays Mabern (an honorable mention in Glide’s 2020 Top Jazz Albums), which highlighted Mabern as the composer. Mabern passed at age 83 in September 2019. Somehow, although the original plan was to release this one first, we now have a wonderful trifecta, and this may well be the best of the three. The aforementioned comparison to the live Lee Morgan is noteworthy too because up until then, Morgan’s band had not been playing in Coltrane’s modal style. Listening to Mabern’s swinging header on the opening “Dahomey’s Dance,” it could well have been Mabern’s love for Coltrane that was the major influence in moving into a modal direction then. He certainly gets his three-pronged front-line horn section in a modal mood once he surrenders to them. From the outset, these cats are swinging and with this configuration, it’s only natural that they address the familiar “Blue Train,” as each horn takes a respectful and individualistic rather than emulative turn before Mabern closes with his fluid, expressive solo, allowing some room for Weber to make a brief bass statement.
This solid, swinging, sauntering start goes turbo with the blistering pace of “Impressions,” steered by a locked-in rhythm section and the ever-propulsive Farnsworth. This is the tune that spawned the quote that kicks off this review. As strong as the horns are in trading fours, Mabern’s rapid runs here defy logic; his playing at this age is totally mesmerizing. The core quartet then engages in the spiritual side for “Dear Lord” with another sterling intro from Mabern touching on both his classical training and his Memphis/gospel roots. Again, as Alexander renders Coltrane’s tenor part here, he puts his own stamp on it, as the arrangement differs considerably from Trane’s original as do the others that follow.
At times “My Favorite Things” is unrecognizable. Mabern opens the piece with an extended quote from Quincy Jones’ “Ai No Corrida” before we have the longtime collaborators Alexander and Mabern moving us into more familiar territory. Of course, Coltrane made the tune essentially his by playing soprano and somehow Herring gets his alto sounding like a soprano here in his soaring solo, which both Farnsworth and Webber, not to be upstaged, take to higher levels in each’s own turn. This is clearly one of the best versions of this oft-covered tune from any group of jazz musicians.
Continuing with the likely Trane selections, “Naima” follows but not in the ballad tempo Trane authored. Instead, the band renders it as an up-tempo Bossa Nova, retaining its beautiful melody and imparting the deep love of the original. Not surprisingly they close with “Straight Street,” the title track of Mabern’s 1989 trio album with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, cited as one of Mabern’s favorite Coltrane pieces. The triumphant power of the ensemble horns leads us in, with Herring blowing as if to clear all from his path, only to make room for a loquacious answer from Davis to which Alexander bursts forth swinging hard. Mabern jumps into this fray and adds even more punch, before exchanging with Farnsworth on the eights as the sextet goes beyond the boiling point at the climactic close, drawing a huge audience response.
From all accounts, Mabern absolutely loved doing the Coltrane festival. Farnsworth put it this way, “…It’s like he was saying, ‘I’m going to play strong every night, I’m going to play better each night, no one’s going to out-swing me, no one’s going to out-energy me, and no one’s going to out-charisma me.’ It was Harold Mabern time.” The three albums recorded at Smoke Jazz Club depict Harold Mabern as interpreter, as a composer, and here as arranger and masterful bandleader. This is a welcome addition to Mabern’s catalog, shining a light on his lengthy career that doesn’t receive enough accolades. Here, less than two years from his passing, Mabern’s talent shines as bright as it ever has.