Smoke Sessions Records to Release
Vibrant Recording of the Late, Great
Harold Mabern Performing the
Music of John Coltrane
Mabern Plays Coltrane, Due Out December 3,
Features All-Star Sextet Including
Vincent Herring, Eric Alexander, Steve Davis,
John Webber, and Joe Farnsworth
Mabern’s Family Contributes to Release
with Liner Notes from Son Michael Mabern and
Dedication from Daughter Roxanne Mabern
The late, great pianist Harold Mabern held a special reverence for John Coltrane. “He was very influential in my life and my playing, too,” Mabern once said. “After being around him and seeing what a great human being he was – man, I wish the whole world could have known John Coltrane.”
The December 3 release of Mabern Plays Coltrane via Smoke Sessions Records offers a glimpse of the love that Mabern felt for Trane’s immortal music. By the same token, though, the impassioned playing of the all-star sextet – Mabern, saxophonists Vincent Herring and Eric Alexander, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth – also showcases the adoration that this group of younger musicians had for Mabern.
“Playing John Coltrane’s music with Harold was like tapping into the source,” says Farnsworth. “He was like the vortex, and it all flowed through him. It was intense. Having Harold on the stage, given how much he loved John Coltrane, it elevated the spirit of the music tenfold.”
Mabern Plays Coltrane is culled from the final three-nights of a three-week residency at Smoke’s annual year ending John Coltrane Festival that started in 2017 ended with these performances that Mabern and the band played in January 2018. The resulting recordings also produced two earlier albums: The Iron Man, which shined a spotlight on Mabern the performer and interpreter and offered a glimpse into a typical evening’s performance and Mabern Plays Mabern, which commemorated Mabern’s gifts as a composer and followed his untimely death at age 83 on September 17, 2019.
Mabern Plays Coltrane is the album that was originally planned for those live recording sessions. Mabern had always played a key role in the festival since its inaugural edition in 2011. From the initial weeklong fest through its later three- and four-week incarnations, Mabern was the headliner for much of the annual run, an indication of both his appreciation for Coltrane as a forbear and mentor as well as his own vital role at Smoke.
“The word ‘family’ is thrown around loosely in the jazz community, but Harold was absolutely family for Smoke and always will be,” declares the club’s owner, Paul Stache. “It’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the inspirations to open up the club in the first place.” Mabern played the venue’s opening night in 1999, and kicked off the Smoke Sessions label with the release of his 2014 album Right On Time, which featured Webber and Farnsworth.
That fervor is in vivid evidence throughout Mabern Plays Coltrane, from the pointed, McCoy Tyner-inflected swing of opener “Dahomey Dance” to the raucous, punchy run through “Straight Street” that closes the hour-long set. In between the band delves deep into favorites from throughout the iconic saxophonist’s career.
The horns all take a turn digging in after the familiar fanfare of “Blue Train,” with the leader’s relaxed but eloquent solo sweeping up after them. “Impressions” is taken at a blistering pace anchored by the virtuoso rhythm section, with Farnsworth propelling the tune with the acrobatic deftness of a master juggler. The band pares down to a quartet for a lovely rendition of “Dear Lord,” with Mabern weaving between gospel and classical influences during his breathtaking solo intro.
The band’s brisk, powerful “My Favorite Things” is a tour de force, with Mabern constantly transforming the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein theme, the two sax men trading bold statements and a show-stopping solo turn by Webber. The tender ballad “Naima” is turned into an up-tempo dance number with a Latin feel.
The stunning music on this set suffices to reveal Mabern’s brilliance at the keyboard as well as his immense respect for Coltrane. But Farnsworth goes even further, recalling that the pianist would turn down invitations to lunch during the festival – hours before a set was scheduled to begin – because he had to focus on that night’s music, a dedication that echoes Coltrane’s famously prodigious practice regimen.
Farnsworth recalls Mabern’s stories of the month-long stint that he played Birdland with singers like Betty Carter and Johnny Hartman, whose sets would alternate with Coltrane’s. “Harold would get there before the gig and talk to John or just listen to him practice,” the drummer relates. “He said Coltrane was the only person he ever met that he considered a real saint.”
“He loved to talk about Coltrane on the bandstand,” Stache continues. “Sometimes he would touch on the music and Coltrane’s impact on jazz, but more often he loved to just talk about Coltrane as a person. The phrase he always used was that John was ‘a great musician but an even more beautiful human being.’ Harold often described himself as a frustrated tenor player, and I think when you listen to his solos you hear a lot of Coltrane influence.”
“Harold loved doing the Coltrane festival,” Farnsworth says. “He was the one guy who played every single night and he took such pride in it. It was like he was saying, ‘I’m going to play strong every night, I’m going to play better each night, no one’s going to out-swing me, no one’s going to out-energy me, and no one’s going to out-charisma me.’ It was Harold Mabern time.”
“Mabern Plays Coltrane” was produced by Paul Stache and Damon Smith,
recorded live at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, NYC on January 5, 6 & 7 2018 and
mastered to ½” analog tape using a Studer mastering deck.
Harold Mabern · Mabern Plays Coltrane
Smoke Sessions Records · Release Date: December 3, 2021