Pianist Harold Mabern, the Memphis born master who has worked and played with just about everybody, has come up with a vocal record by using some of his favorite singers like Gregory Porter, Jane Monheit, Norah Jones, Kurt Elling, and Alexis Cole.
“Well, I love vocalists. I love to play for singers because that’s really how you learn how to play the piano jazz-wise”, that’s what he said in an interview with Damon Smith in late December, parts of which can be found in the liner notes for this album. But there are some instrumentals on this varied collection as well, like the opener, “The Chief”, dedicated to John Coltrane who was very influential in Harold’s life. Saxophonist Eric Alexander, a long-time bandmate for Mr. Mabern, plays a bluesy and excellent part here, as he does on the first vocal track, the title song “Afro Blue”. Gregory Porter takes over with some imaginative scatting on this Mongo Santamaria/Oscar Brown Jr. tune here. Gregory is also featured on another original which Harold wrote for Herbie Hancock whom he had met early in his career in Chicago. It’s a perfect vehicle for Gregory and his sonorous pipes telling this sweet story.
There’s a total change in style and sound when Norah Jones chips in on a grooving “Fools Rush In” to which Harold wanted to use a “Poinciana” backdrop (Mabern actually studied harmony with Ahmad Jamal) which really works well here as it turns out to be a real breezy swinger with Harold comping in satisfying style and the brass (with Jeremy Pelt and Steve Turre in addition to Eric Alexander) putting some melting icing on the cake. Harold and Norah are duetting on the Gordon Parks classic “Don’t Misunderstand”, a beautiful take showcasing both Jones’ perfect chops and Harold’s vast experience with singers, starting with Betty Carter and continuing with Gloria Lynne, Dakota Staton, Ernestine Anderson, and Irene Reid. Simply beautiful!
Jane Monheit takes over for two tracks: on “I’ll Take Romance” she really shines alongside Harold’s melodic playing and another great brass arrangement. “My One And Only Love” is done here to perfection, with both Jane and Harold interacting elegantly and exchanging svelte ideas with a soulful sax solo by Eric Alexander woven in.
Next up is Kurt Elling for three tracks. Charlie Parker‘s “Billie’s Bounce” has him scatting with lots of finesse and commanding grace, but I have to admit that scatting is still not my thing. Here comes Jeremy Pelt as the redeemer with a strong trumpet solo. I like Kurt much better on “Portrait of Jennie”, a wonderful take with his colorful timbre executing a persuasive job. Harold again has the role of the diligent and straightforward accompanist. Randy Goodrum‘s “You Needed Me” at first seems like an odd choice on this collection. It was originally intended for Norah Jones, but Elling does it with grandeur and class.
Alexis Cole is featured on another original composition. “Such Is Life” reminds me of the best Chris Connor period, not only because of the similarity of both singers, but also because of the overall theme and story of the song. Love songs like this particular tune are not done anymore, unfortunately. It really has a charming aura.
The album concludes with three instrumentals. Steely Dan‘s “Do It Again” features some mean guitar work by Peter Bernstein, “Mozzin'” by drummer Joe Farnsworth is a soulful, kind of 60s Blue Note-style stomper with a nailing piano work, and “Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu”, written by Mabern as a dedication to the Jazz Messengers, comes along in best Horace Silver/Bobby Timmons “Moanin'” style, smoking and cooking. A brimming showcase for a striking pianist who turns 80 next year.