Skip to content


Harold Mabern

harold mabern

It is with a mixture of pride and sorrow that Smoke Sessions Records announces the release of Harold Mabern’s Mabern Plays Mabern on March 20th. Pride because Mabern’s 27th recording as a leader, culled from the same three January 2018 nights that generated his 26th, The Iron Man: Live At Smoke, documents the master pianist, then 81, in prime form, functioning as an inspired soloist, attentive accompanist, melodic interpreter, and crafty tunesmith. Sorrow because the release, which was planned for his 84th birthday, is posthumous — Harold Mabern died unexpectedly on September 17, 2019, at the age of 83.

For the engagement in question, Mabern convened long-standing band-mates Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone, John Webber on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums, augmented by Smoke Sessions recording artists Steve Davis on trombone and Vincent Herring on alto saxophone. All members rise to the occasion on repertoire that spans 51 years of Mabern’s six decades as a recording artist, leader and sideman.

Indeed, the proceedings embody the qualities enumerated in a loving Facebook eulogy tribute by Charles Lloyd, Mabern’s bandmate at Manassas High School, in Memphis, Tennessee, at the cusp of the 1950s. Lloyd wrote: “Harold was a scholar of our history, insightful, hilarious, sincere, deep, with intense, boundless energy and inclusive with his warmth. Before they called him ‘Leading Man,’ his nickname was ‘Big Hands.’ With the broad reach of those hands, he caressed many beautiful chords. He was a storyteller and every note he played had a message.”

Another Manassas H.S. classmate, tenor saxophonist George Coleman — a close friend whose most recent recorded encounter with Mabern was the September 2019 Smoke Sessions Records release The Quartet — expressed similar sentiments in a New York Times obituary after Mabern’s death: “Harold was a complete musician,” Coleman observed. “He was always adventurous, and he was always swinging, keeping the crowd pleased.”

That the paying customers at Smoke were pleased is palpable throughout. “You’re hearing things that Harold wrote or enjoyed playing,” Alexander says. “This is the way Harold crystallized and refined his personal approach, the way he presented his music in front of people, night after night, which is the Harold Mabern that we adored the most. Of course, his studio recordings are great, but live, Harold threw caution to the wind. When he played live, it was magic; whatever happened, he was going to get out of it.”

As an example, consider Mabern’s emergence from a spirit-raising rubato introduction into the clarion theme of the session-opening “Mr. Johnson,” a modal burner. (Dedicated to trombone legend J.J. Johnson, a frequent mid-’60s employer, it first appeared on an October 1969 Lee Morgan sextet session.) Mabern comps behind each horn solo with an inspirationally take-no-prisoners attitude, then gives himself the final say with an erudite, swinging solo.

Or groove to the elemental soulfulness and urbane sophistication of the date-closer, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” which first surfaced in 1968 as the title track of Mabern’s second leader album, whose participants included Coleman on tenor saxophone, Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Bill Lee on bass. It’s a stomping boogaloo-blues that recalls Mabern’s father’s promise that he’d “rake and scrape up” funds for his junior’s first piano.

Another reference to Mabern’s long tenure with Morgan is “Edward Lee,” whose strutting theme captures Morgan’s swagger. (The trumpet giant’s full name was Edward Lee Morgan.) Mabern debuted it on the 1980 trio date Pisces Calling; then on a 1991 duo session with bassist Kieran Overs titled Philadelphia Bound; then on Alexander’s 1999 quartet album Live At The Keynote; then on the Japanese-market trio album Don’t Know Why.

“The Bee Hive,” named for the South Side Chicago nightclub where Mabern heard Charlie Parker in 1955, is one of the most enduring tracks from Morgan’s iconic 1970 location album Live At The Lighthouse. At Smoke, the thrilling ripostes between Alexander and Herring that comprise the first half of this wild ride channel Parker’s unfettered spirit.

The complex, stentorian “Lyrical Cole-Man” (also from Pisces Calling) is Mabern’s tone parallel to George Coleman, whose inflamed clarity comes through in intense solos by Alexander and the leader.

Renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge and erudite navigation of the Great American and Great Jazz Songbooks, Mabern — who spent much of the 1960s as a favored accompanist for such singers as Betty Carter, Joe Williams, and Sarah Vaughan — was unparalleled at harmonizing less-traveled standards in individualistic ways that illuminated their message. On Mabern Plays Mabern, the selections are “It’s Magic,” which Mabern introduces with a gorgeous rubato statement that foreshadows Alexander’s romance-saturated solo, and “Lover Man,” highlighted by heartfelt declamations from Vincent Herring and Steve Davis.

Mabern’s rollicking introductory solo to Alexander’s “Miles’ Mode” refraction, “The Iron Man,” a staple of the Alexander-Mabern Quartet through the years, sets the stage for all members to swing their hardest. The title — and the performance — encapsulates the indefatigable energy, intense focus, abiding humility and giving personality that the octogenarian maestro projected through his until his final day. The notes and tones are emblematic of a remark Mabern made to DownBeat in 2015: “You can take a hundred-dollar gig, but on the bandstand you get a million dollars’ worth of experience, because you always find something that you didn’t know before you got on the bandstand.”

There are no upcoming events at this time.

  • Smoke Sessions Records Celebrates Great Artistry in 2020 - Smoke Sessions Records Celebrates Great Artistry in 2020 with Releases by Late Harold Mabern, Wayne Escoffery, Orrin Evans Captain Black Big Band, Bobby Watson, Eddie Henderson, Joe Farnsworth, Peter Bernstein, and Eric Reed 2021 Kicks Off with Albums From Greg Skaff with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath; Vincent Herring with Cyrus Chestnut, Johnathan Blake, Yasushi Nakamura…
  • Harold Mabern | “Mabern Plays Mabern” | Available March 20 via Smoke Sessions Records - Mabern Plays Mabern: The Late Great Harold Mabern Performs His Classic Repertoire Available March 20 via Smoke Sessions Records Performances Feature Vincent Herring, Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, John Webber, and Joe Farnsworth It is with a mixture of pride and sorrow that Smoke Sessions Records announces the release of Harold Mabern’s Mabern Plays Mabern on March 20th. Pride because Mabern’s…
  • Pianist and Educator Harold Mabern Passes Away at 83 - Harold Mabern: March 20, 1936 – September 17, 2019 Influential Jazz Pianist and Educator Passes Away at Age 83 Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz Legendary jazz pianist Harold Mabern died suddenly on Tuesday, September 17, as a result of a heart attack. He was 83. His death was announced on Thursday by his record label, Smoke…
  • Steve Davis | “Correlations” | Available March 8 via Smoke Sesssions Records - Master Trombonist Steve Davis Debuts His Powerhouse New Sextet on Correlations, Available March 8 on Smoke Sessions Records New Album Features Stellar Lineup Including Wayne Escoffery, Joshua Bruneau, Xavier Davis, Dezron Douglas and Jonathan Barber Album Release Performances March 7-9 at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club One of the most acclaimed trombonists of his generation, Steve Davis has…
  • AVAILABLE NOW: Harold Mabern | ” The Iron Man: Live at Smoke” | Smoke Sessions Records - Double Disc Set AVAILABLE NOW on Smoke Sessions Records Jazz Master Harold Mabern Swings Through an Extraordinary Life in Music During One Memorable Night On Stage at Smoke The Iron Man: Live at Smoke Flashes Back to Favorite Songs From the Pianist’s Renowned Career   While it was captured over the course a single night,…
  • Harold Mabern | “The Iron Man: Live at Smoke | Available November 23 via Smoke Sessions Records - Jazz Master Harold Mabern Swings Through an Extraordinary Life in Music During One Memorable Night On Stage at Smoke The Iron Man: Live at Smoke Flashes Back to Favorite Songs From the Pianist’s Renowned Career Double Disc Set Available November 23 on Smoke Sessions Records   Release Performances December 17 – January 6 at New…
  • Harold Mabern – “To Love and Be Loved” – Available August 25 - “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…

Harold Mabern MABERN PLAYS MABERN Cover 3000px

Mabern Plays Mabern


Record Label:  Smoke Sessions
Release Date: March 20, 2020