“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,” Eden Ahbez wrote in “Nature Boy,” his classic song, “is just to love and be loved in return.” That may not be something that pianist Harold Mabern has taught in the classroom during his decades as an influential educator, but it’s certainly a lesson that he’s passed on time and again by example. On his latest album, To Love and Be Loved, Mabern is joined by a multi-generational band that brings together one of his legendary peers with some of his most acclaimed former students – all of whom play with the same love and respect that Mabern has shared with them over the years.
Due out August 25 on Smoke Sessions Records, Mabern’s To Love and Be Loved reunites Mabern with 88-year-old drumming legend Jimmy Cobb, with whom he first played in Miles Davis’s band during a brief but memorable stint in 1963. The rhythm section is completed by the impeccably swinging bassist Nat Reeves, while the frontline features Mabern’s prize student and frequent collaborator Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone and, on three tracks, another Mabern protégé, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. Master percussionist Cyro Baptista completes the line-up with a performance on the opening track.
To Love and Be Loved takes its name not from the “Nature Boy” line quoted above (à propos as it may be), but from a rarely revived Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn tune written for the classic 1958 film Some Came Running. Originally performed by Frank Sinatra in a lush Nelson Riddle arrangement, the song was nominated for an Oscar but hasn’t been a major part of the jazz songbook since. Long a fan of the song, Mabern was determined to record it, albeit with a completely different feel. In the rendition that opens the album, the sweeping ballad is transformed into an up-tempo number with a slight bossa nova feel.
While he learned most valuable lessons the old-fashioned way – on the bandstand – Mabern has endeavored to pass along similar experiences to his students during his remarkable 36-year tenure at William Paterson University. The results speak for themselves – a partial list of graduates who’ve come under his tutelage include, in addition to Alexander and Hendrix, Tyshawn Sorey, Joe Farnsworth, Bill Stewart, Johnathan Blake, Roxy Coss and Mark Guiliana.
“The way I teach, you have to learn by using your ears, the way Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did,” Mabern explains. “This music didn’t come from the school; this music comes from the streets. School is just an enhancement.”
True to his determination not to draw a line between educational and practical experience, Mabern approached To Love and Be Loved in the same way. The recording date followed a weekend of performances at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, the label’s namesake venue, with little planned in the way of repertoire and no music on the stands. The things that worked live, including Hendrix’s impromptu appearance with the band, were carried into the studio, though only the title track, Hendrix’s arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “The Gigolo,” and Mabern’s radically revised “I Get a Kick Out of You,” were decided on beforehand.
With musicians this skilled, little more is needed. The most important common element, Mabern notes, comes from yet another quotation, this one better known in jazz circles – “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
“There’s two things you can’t teach in this business,” Mabern states. “You can’t teach people how to swing, and you can’t teach people how to play the blues. You can write notes down and you can demonstrate, but if they don’t have the internal instincts to do it, it’s not going to work. Jimmy Cobb likes to swing. Eric Alexander likes to swing. Nat Reeves has a beautiful, big beat, and he likes to swing. We’re what you might call traditionalists. That’s the thing that made it such a joy.”
Whether taken at a gentle, loping pace on “If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You” or a simmer on “The Gigolo,” whether blazing through McCoy Tyner’s fierce “Inner Glimpse” or strolling vigorously on Alexander’s “The Iron Man,” swing is the force that binds this album together. The on-the-spot repertoire spans an elegant “My Funny Valentine” and a blues-saturated version of Gene Ammons’ “Hittin’ the Jug.” Mabern takes a solo turn with Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere,” while he and Cobb reminisce on their Miles days on a welcome “So What.”
In discussing his reimaging of classic tunes and the inspiration for the album, Mabern quotes an unlikely mentor for a jazz musician: Albert Einstein. The famed physicist once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Mabern took that message to heart, letting his own imagination run free on his new release,
To Love and Be Loved.