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Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Coltrane (Smoke Sessions)

A review of the late pianist's album recorded in 2018 at New York City’s Smoke Jazz Club

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Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Coltrane
The cover of Mabern Plays Coltrane by Harold Mabern

Memphis’ late great towering pianist Harold Mabern had it all down cold. Whether it was the many shades of bop, the varied hues of the blues, or the (then) bourgeoning soul-jazz genre of his solo albums’ start, Mabern always moved forward with an impassioned brand of aggression, a twirling rangy tremolo, and a simple, beautiful tone. His sweet-and-sour block chords, coated in a rainbow of flavor, are something to savor. And nothing brought it out of Mabern better than the music of John Coltrane.

Mabern Plays Coltrane was recorded in January 2018 at New York City’s Smoke Jazz Club with longtime tenor-sax collaborator Eric Alexander, altoist Vincent Herring, bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth, and trombonist Steve Davis. Each craftsman played, singularly, in service to Trane. 

Such service was, in reality, more of a calling for Mabern—and “calling” is an apt description when he trims his sextet to a quartet and imbues “Dear Lord” with a righteous and regal mix of gospel traditionalism and chamber classicism. This in no way, however, resembles the sharp, strident version of “Straight Street” that Mabern’s full band appropriates, or even the surprisingly racing, jagged take on “Impressions.” Here, Mabern and his charts are holy like a devout devotee, but hardly those of a reverent copycat. 

The swaying, Tyner-inspired “Dahomey Dance,” an oblong Latin-feeling “Naima,” and the swelling “My Favorite Things”—the latter building higher and stronger, its saxophonists outdoing each other step by step—show that the pianist’s band are just as in awe of Coltrane as their leader. In particular, Alexander on “Dear Lord” sounds divinely inspired while playing it straight. But this is as much the gospel of saint Harold as it is the word of Coltrane, and it is good, great, and deserving of worship.

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Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Mabern (Smoke Sessions)