Friday, May 27, 2016

Workin' & Wailin': Harold Mabern on Prestige, 1969

Hank Mobley and Harold Mabern
An often overlooked hard bop pianist, Harold Mabern has nonetheless carved out a long career as both a sideman and a leader, occasionally dabbling in soul jazz, composing a lot of his own material, and always playing with sensitivity and verve. Born in Memphis in 1936, he was initially influenced by fellow Memphian Phineas Newborn, Jr., and could double on electric piano whenever necessary. Virtually self-taught, Mabern started to make a name for himself in Chicago after moving there in 1954, yet his most intense flurry of activity as a sideman coincides with the first half of the 1960s, following a life-changing move to New York City in 1959. It was there that he began playing with the likes of Harry "Sweets" Edison and Lionel Hampton, and soon he was touring with Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet. The list of musicians with whom Mabern played in the sixties reads like a who's who of the jazz scene of the period, including, among many others, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley (he sounds fantastic on Mobley's album Dippin'), J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, and singers Johnny Hartman, Betty Carter, and Sarah Vaughan. Of course, he recorded with many of them, but his recording career as a leader doesn't begin until 1968, when he signed with Prestige and cut four lovely albums that, unfortunately, aren't easy to find on CD.

The third of these LPs, recorded in a single session on June 30, 1969, is entitled Workin' & Wailin' and finds Mabern both on piano and electric piano, accompanied by Virgil Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn, George Coleman on tenor, Buster Williams on bass, and Idris Muhammad (aka Leo Morris) on drums. Mabern contributed four original compositions to the date, among them two, "Strozier's Mode" and "Blues for Phineas," that allude to his friend Frank Strozier and to pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., both of whom were important influences in his life. On the latter, Mabern switches to electric piano and proves to be a soulful interpreter of the blues on that instrument. The other two selections written by Mabern are "I Can't Understand What I See in You," a catchy, contemporary-sounding tune, and "Waltzing Westward," a lively melody in three-quarter time. All four Mabern originals are good examples of the pianist's aggressive, chord-filled approach and showcase his undeniable talent as a composer, also leaving plenty of room for Jones and Coleman to shine. The album opener, "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," associated with The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, finds Mabern stepping into soul jazz territory, while the closing track, Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster's "A Time for Love," is the slowest selection on the LP and shows Mabern's most sensitive side. The album has been collated with another Prestige date by Mabern, Greasy Kid Stuff, for a CD reissue titled simply Wailin' , which inexplicably leaves out "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby." Until someone decides to release Mabern's complete Prestige recordings in digital format (which would be really desirable, by the way), this disc is well worth picking up, though. Mabern, who's an octogenarian at the time of this writing, has built up quite a following in Japan (he's even cut some albums for Japanese labels) and has fortunately kept recording steadily, his last session as a leader so far dating from 2014. A classy hard bopper who deserves wider recognition.

No comments: