While it was captured over the course a single night, there’s a rich lifetime’s worth of music packed into The Iron Man: Live at Smoke. If it’s a slight overstatement to say that the album represents an autobiography in song, that’s only because 82-year-old jazz master Harold Mabern tells his story in every note that he plays. That’s as true of the melodies he’s been interpreting for more then half a century – as many of the tunes on The Iron Man are – as it is of the always inspired music that flows spontaneously from the great pianist’s fingers.
The Iron Man, due out November 23 via Smoke Sessions Records, was recorded on the final night of a remarkable three-week residency, an annual holiday tradition at the renowned New York City club. Most of that 2017/18 run was dedicated to the music of John Coltrane and featured a host of invited guests to the bandstand. For this magical final performance, however, Mabern and his gifted, longstanding quartet – tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber, and drummer Joe Farnsworth – went it alone, vigorously swinging through well-loved tunes from throughout Mabern’s storied career.
The night kicks off with the rollicking funk of “A Few Miles from Memphis,” the title track from Mabern’s 1968 leader debut. The piece harkens back to Mabern’s vital role as a pioneer of soul jazz alongside collaborators like the great trumpeter Lee Morgan. More importantly, though, it transports the pianist back to his roots in Memphis, Tennessee, where he became entranced by the great jazz and blues innovator Phineas Newborn Jr. The city’s legendary blues traditions took hold of a generation of young musicians; Mabern graduated from Manassas High School, whose alumni also include Charles Lloyd and future Mabern collaborators Booker Little, Frank Strozier, and George Coleman.
Many of those Memphians would reconvene in Chicago in the mid-'50s, which is where Mabern honed his hard bop grooves accompanying such powerhouse tenor titans as Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan. By the end of the decade he had found his way to New York City, where he would soon be an in-demand sideman for many of the most notable leaders of that generation – including Lionel Hampton, Donald Byrd, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Williams, and Hank Mobley.
Mabern’s tender reading of Benny Golson’s immortal “I Remember Clifford” here, in a trio setting, recalls one of his first important gigs upon arriving in the Big Apple. He spent 18 months with The Jazztet, replacing McCoy Tyner in the influential band co-led by Golson and Art Farmer. The blistering “I Know That You Know” flashes forward to 1965, when Mabern recorded the tune with another hard bop trailblazer, saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
Mabern’s surprising rearrangement of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” meanwhile, is revived from last year’s To Love and Be Loved, an album which reunited him with legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb – who Mabern had first played with half a century earlier in Miles Davis’ band. Mabern’s stint with the iconic trumpeter was brief, but came at a crucial time as Davis was experimenting with the line-up that would finally congeal into his Second Great Quintet. Two earlier veterans of Davis’s storied band – John Coltrane and Paul Chambers -- receive a nod with Trane’s classic “Mr. P.C.”
Mabern forged a more lasting bond with Lee Morgan, recording the classic album The Gigolo for Blue Note in 1965 and continuing to play with the trumpet innovator until the night of his tragic death at Slug’s Saloon in 1972. In the meantime, Mabern started recording under his own name, releasing four well-regarded albums for Prestige between 1968-70 whose line-ups included such brilliant improvisers as Morgan, Blue Mitchell, George Coleman, Bill Lee, Hubert Laws, and Idris Muhammad.
On those outings Mabern helped define the fusion of soul and jazz, including contemporary hits like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” – a penchant echoed on the Smoke bandstand with the quartet’s lovely take on the Michael Jackson ballad “She’s Out of My Life.” He followed a similar route with Stanley Turrentine when he worked with the soulful saxophonist on the early-'70s albums The Sugar Man and Don’t Mess With Mister T.
“Nightlife in Tokyo” is the Mabern-penned title tune from Eric Alexander’s 2002 album, which featured Mabern and Farnsworth along with bassist Ron Carter. It’s one of countless collaborations between the two since Mabern became the saxophonist’s mentor at William Paterson University, where the pianist has been a member of the faculty since 1981.
While he and Alexander have shifted from teacher and student to a partnership that is one of the most meaningful between any saxophonist and pianist in jazz, that’s just one testament to Mabern’s profound influence as an educator, a contribution to jazz on par with that made through his music. The list of Mabern students who have gone on to make their mark include Farnsworth, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey, drummers Bill Stewart, Mark Guiliana and Johnathan Blake, and saxophonist Roxy Coss.
The Iron Man draws to a rousing conclusion with another title tune, this one from Mabern’s 1968 sophomore release “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” which featured George Coleman and trumpet great Blue Mitchell on the frontline. He rerecorded the piece with Lee Morgan on 1970’s Live at the Lighthouse, though the fact that he’s kept his ears wide open in the intervening decades is revealed by the clever quote of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” that crops up unexpectedly in his solo.
Whether you listen to these two sets as representing a single special evening or 82 memorable years, there’s ample evidence that Harold Mabern deserves to be known as The Iron Man – a powerhouse player, a formative mentor, a revered survivor.
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