REVIEW: Harold Mabern Trio at Ronnie Scott's

Harold Mabern at Ronnie Scott's
Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott's

Harold Mabern Trio 
(Ronnie Scott's, 21st January 2015. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Just as Harold Mabern's words in our interview just before Christmas seemed to bring the history of jazz so vividly to life, so his every touch of the piano speaks with authority and authenticity of a piano tradition with deep roots. There are acknowledged influences from both Phineas Newborn Jr. and from Ahmad Jamal, but Mabern is his own man, a highly individual player.

Can a written review explain or even describe the magic of the Memphis-born player's piano sound? Not really. Adjectives (bright-toned, percussive, decisive, emphatic) do help a bit, and Carl Hyde's great picture (above) of those strong hands poised to strike the keyboard helps....but doesn't take you the whole way. Yes, you have to be there, hear it and marvel at how it happens.

One highlight last night came with the most unexpected item, Sting's Fragile, played as an acknowledgement to the fact that Mabern was playing a gig ...sort of vaguely somewhere near where Sting came from.... (Birmingham? he asked), and played as the second set calmer/opener. It was poetic, lived, poised, beautiful, calmly stated, and with no jazz soloing in sight. Daahoud was played as ballad, and as an affectionate tribute to "the most perfect trumpet player" Clifford Brown. Mabern loves springing surprises, knows how to shift the mood and the narrative with masterly panache, and had more to give till the end of the show, not just playing but also singing a powerful and soulful blues as the first encore.

Joe Farnsworth at Ronnie Scott's
Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott's
If Mabern is so proudly self-taught, his rhythm cohort is exceptionally schooled. There were quite a few drummers in the house last night, and they had - presumably - come out to catch Joe Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a student of Alan Dawson, the same teacher who taught Tony Williams, and every one of the virtues which Tony Williams talks about in this remarkable lecture from 1989 were there in the drummer's playing, in particular that deep knowledge of the contours of tunes which gave crispness to everything from the sillinesses of El Jarabe Tapatio, (better known as the Mexican Hat-Dance) to his drum feature Bye Bye Baby. As Mabern said, ribbing him: "Joe Farnsworth has fast hands, we have to give him a chance to show off."

John Webber at Ronnie Scott's Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott's

The suave and unflappable John Webber has a completely balanced stance on the instrument, and his classical left hand shape looked to me like the living text-book, again well caught in Carl Hyde's photo here.

Ronnie's had taken an informed risk, but the club was completely full, and everybody, and especially those who were able to stay till the final solo encore, Bobby Timmons' Dat Dere,in the darkness, had a genuine treat.

1 comment:

  1. Neat review, Sebastian!

    A few thoughts to add....

    Harold is indeed a life force. Not just in his energy - his basically percussive style but with flexibility on the beat, a love of swirling runs & an intelligent, agile use of the left hand must push his mighty physical & intellectual powers not inconsiderably - but also because of his irrepressible optimism, and a curiosity about music, people & life that is often less obvious in people half his age.

    His generous (musical & spoken) tributes to other inspirational musicians - including Clifford, Bird, Tatum, those five Pennsylvanians (basically the Jazz Messengers circa 1959), & not least (and tellingly) "John William Coltrane", bespeak a bright spirit and - for all the obvious hardships, and dues - an always-young musical journey.

    The generosity extends beyond music. I found him dispensing humble medical advice to a fan, before expressing some concern to me about how Frank Strozier had chosen to go incommunicado of late. His good humour and engaging personality are obvious in his stage banter (resourcefully finding unpushy ways to plug his new CD, coming out in May, "so come over to the States for the launch!"), but up close too, he has a likeable, courteous and warm personality.

    The labyrinthine runs of course bow to Art Tatum - a point I had not registered before - and as you say, Sebastian, the man is full of surprises! "Memphis Slim" unexpectedly entered the building in the first encore (worth noting that Harold comes from the same place not only as Booker Little, Frank Strozier and Phineas, but also deep-rooted tenors such as Charles Lloyd, George Coleman, Hank Crawford, & indeed Memphis Slim, Booker T Jones and (near enough) Isaac Hayes: John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf are also associated with Memphis - it's pretty earthy, soulful ground down in Tennessee).

    Personally, I very much liked his tribute composition to "Bobby Benny Jymie Lee & Bu", with whose identities he teased the "knowledgeable jazz audience" - throwing in a bit of Fagen/Becker's "Do It Again" as if to confuse the puzzle. ("Bu" = Abdullah Buhaina, aka Art Blakey. Harold was too interested in playing on to get so far with the answers to his Pennsylvanian ID quiz! :D )

    An obvious criticism of Harold's style is that it is a bit "heavy", even "unsubtle". On the first, well, he does not aim to emulate Bill Evans at his quietest - with that powerful emotion, those Southern roots, that Coltrane-heavy passion, you wouldn't expect a a particularly wistful approach! :) I have also to say - sorry Ronnie's! - for me at least, the amplification was up just a bit too high, and set a wee bit hollow too. Harold does not play a celeste. Indeed, in a small club full of about 300 souls, I wonder whether he or the drums actually need mics at all. In any case, for me at least the volume & mix made the piano sound rather harsher than it should have, than it is. Which is a pity.

    On the second point: where the PA allows, Mr Mabern is certainly plenty subtle. Those runs, the fabulous swirling coda which which he closed the opener of the session, a (typicially unusually) uptempo version of "Alone Together", the sensitively pitched, finely judged obbligatos behind the bass solos - whether a longer engraving or a single pecked Basie-like chord - are examples of that.

    This outstanding complementary playing was nicely displayed behind an extended Mexican Hat Dance: illuminating a piece that - for once - seemed rather flat & arid melodic terrain for Harold's eclectic, memorable, deep-soulful and highly skilled own brand of jazz. (In some ways I'd have preferred, say, Marvin's "What's Going On?" - one of Harold's legendary recordings - to that ol' piece of Hokum Mejicano! :D)