Jazz pianist Harold Mabern a superb sideman who sometimes leads

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 11:31am

Jazz is often thought of as music for soloists, and the importance of skilled accompanists is easily overlooked. But there are great jazzmen who enjoy the esteem of their peers for performing outstanding supporting as well as starring roles.

One of those is pianist Harold Mabern, 79, from Memphis, Tennessee. He has deep roots in the blues, which anchor his melodically adventurous improvisations. Mabern cites Phineas Newborn as his most important influence, but as Newborn - who was only four years older than Mabern - was also a Memphis native, that may have something to do with hometown civic pride.

When playing behind a soloist or singer, Mabern's understanding of the value of space and the right voicings in the right place serves everybody well, and when he takes solos he makes his point without upstaging the star of the show.

On his latest album, Afro Blue, Mabern merges the leader and accompanist's roles, and reminds us that although he is best known now for backing instrumentalists such as saxophonists George Coleman, Cecil Payne and Eric Alexander, he is also a sympathetic pianist for singers. That's Mabern on the classic 1964 album Inside Betty Carter.

Afro Blue features guest vocalists Gregory Porter, Norah Jones and Jane Monheit performing two songs each, Kurt Elling taking three, and Alexis Cole singing one.

"I love vocalists. I love to play for singers because that's really how you learn how to play the piano jazz-wise. They go through every aspect of music - changing keys, slow tempos to fast, playing rubato, playing verses, all of the Great American Songbook," he says.

In addition to his regular trio partners - Joe Farnsworth on drums and John Webber on bass - there are also guest instrumentalists: guitarist Peter Bernstein, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander on tenor sax and Steve Turre on trombone.

Mabern is on superb form, and contributes four original compositions, two instrumentals and two songs. Unfortunately his considerable talents do not extend from music to lyrics. Strong though the melodies are, it is probably a good gauge of how respected Mabern is as a musician that Porter and Cole agreed to perform The Man From Hyde Park and Such is Life.

"The Man from Hyde Park" is Herbie Hancock, and the lyric recounts events from early in his career. "How can he produce/ Chords of such great use?" and "Then I told him to go and play with the guys up on the stand/ And his playing was grand", are representative couplets.

Porter makes the most of Oscar Brown Jnr's rather better lyrics for the Mongo Santamaria-composed title track, and while Norah Jones is no Betty Carter, she and Mabern make an effective duet of Gordon Parks' Don't Misunderstand. Bernstein features on only one track: a jazz quartet version of Steely Dan's Do It Again.

Despite the guest star pulling power of the singers - most are names more likely to shift CDs than Mabern's - my favourite tracks are the instrumentals.

In addition to Do It Again, there is John Farnsworth's Mozzin' performed by the core trio of Mabern, Webber and the composer, and the album is bookended by two Mabern instrumental originals.

The Chief, composed for John Coltrane, opens the album, and Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee and Bu pays tribute to a classic Jazz Messengers line-up featuring Bobby Timmons, Benny Golson, Jymie Merritt, Lee Morgan and Art Blakey. Bu is short for "Buhaina", a name Blakey adopted after becoming (after a fashion) a Muslim.

Mabern describes the album as "the most difficult thing I've ever done" and is eloquent testimony to his continued excellence as a soloist, band leader and accompanist.

Meanwhile, the jazz gig of the week is Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, playing solo at Youth Square Y-Theatre tomorrow at 8.15pm. The Stray Katz, performing their regular gig on the first Saturday of the month at Grappa's Cellar at 8pm, should also be worth hearing.

Take Three

Three fine jazz albums featuring Mabern as sideman or leader.

The Night of the Cookers (1965, Blue Note): trumpeter Freddie Hubbard leads a band of Blue Note stalwarts including Mabern and fellow trumpeter Lee Morgan through a club set, recorded live.

A Few Miles From Memphis (1968, Prestige): Mabern makes his debut as a leader on a strong bluesy set which also features George Coleman in a twin tenor line-up with Buddy Terry.

Lookin' on the Bright Side (1993, DIW): Mabern tackles standards and one composition each from John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in a fine multi-generational trio with Jack DeJohnette on drums and a young Christian McBride on bass.