For Harold Mabern’s 83rd birthday, I’m augmenting a post that I put up in 2015 (it contained an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2004) with a “Director’s Cut” of a 2015 Downbeat feature. Here’s the intro I wrote to the post at the time:
Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.
Harold Mabern Downbeat Feature, 2015:
On March 19th, a day before he turned 79, Harold Mabern celebrated by taking a sideman gig with bassist Gregory Ryan. The venue was not a jazz club, but a cavernous mid-Manhattan branch of Hillhouse, the steakhouse chain, where the “bandstand” is a narrow 15′ floor space from the piano, which sits at the base of the stairway to the street, to the drums, next to a corner door leading to a storage room. The trio faced a large oval bar, banquettes and perhaps a dozen circular tables, packed with raucous Thursday dinner hour patrons—corporate types cutting loose before the weekend, couples, well-heeled families with small children.
While waiting for tables, folks milled about the piano, among them a woman bouncing her harnessed baby to the beat of Mabern’s relentless vamp on “You Go To My Head.” Mabern smiled broadly as he reharmonized the melody, transitioned to a long chordal passage executed in parallel octaves, then, to conclude, switched to rhythmic dialogue with Farnsworth. After stating the verse and melody of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” as a surging waltz, he shifted to several choruses of block chords over a brisk swing section. An abstract rubato solo introduction morphed into “The Nearness Of You,” reharmonized with voicings evocative of Red Garland. Two little girls had sidled by the piano, transfixed by Mabern’s huge hands dancing across the keys; he smiled at them benignly while interpolating a long section from “Strangers In The Night” and a Bobby Timmons blues. After a rollicking stroll down John Coltrane’s “Straight Street,” on which he alternated fleet single-line movements with stirring passages of two-handed invention, he closed the set with his own soulfully boppish “Aon” which premiered on Mabern’s 1968 Prestige debut Rakin’ and Scrapin’.
A week or so after this grandmaster class in the art of the trio, suffused with high intellect, deep emotion and an abiding sense of musical adventure, Mabern recalled a piece of sage advice from his good friend, the long-deceased alto saxophonist Sylvester “Sonny Red” Kyner: “Mabern, a little bit of money beats no money any day; a small gig is better than no gig at all.” Mabern continued: “Nobody’s coming where I live to hear me play. The things I do for my friends, we do for each other. The gig pays $100, but on the bandstand you get a million dollars worth of experience, because you always find something you didn’t know before.”
A fortnight later, Mabern played three nights at Smoke to acknowledge a new release, Afro Blue, on SmokeSessions, the club’s imprint. Present from the recording on the opening set were Farnsworth, bassist John Webber and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, his bandmates of choice for several decades. Vocalist Jean Baylor filled in on short notice for Alexis Cole, one of five singers on the date, along with Kurt Elling, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit and Gregory Porter. It’s the first of Mabern’s two dozen leader dates to showcase the context in which he worked frequently during the 1960s, often at Birdland but also on the road, with Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, Irene Reid, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Station, Ernestine Anderson, Arthur Prysock, Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan, in between consequential sideman stints of varying lengths with the Jazztet, Roy Haynes, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery and Lee Morgan.
The idea gestated when Mabern mentioned his experiences with “the singing thing” during an interview for the liner notes of Right On Time, a live trio engagement with Webber and Farnsworth that launched SmokeSessions. “We asked Harold if he’d made a record with singers,” Paul Stache, the club’s proprietor and label head, said. “He said, ‘No, but I always wanted to.’” Stache already had a notion to recruit Gregory Porter for a future project after Porter sang Johnny Hartman and other Coltrane repertoire with Mabern’s group during an end-of-2011 week at Smoke. He also knew that during a three-year period when Porter sang at Smoke every Thursday, Mabern, when in town, attended almost every single performance. When Stache later reminded Mabern of the singers idea, he replied, “If you get Gregory, I’m in; I wrote a song that’s perfect for him.’” Stache put together a six-singer wish-list. “Five of them confirmed,” Stache said. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, for Harold…’”
“Gregory reminded me of Joe Williams, who I played with for three years,” Mabern said. “Joe could sing anything—what Pavarotti sang, or ‘Over The Rainbow’ or ‘Go Down, Moses’—and Gregory is ubiquitous in his language and selection of songs. I went even when it was Chicago-cold and snowing.” As Mabern does not drive, this meant catching a bus from Spring Creek Towers, a cooperative apartment complex of 15,000 residents in the East New York district of Brooklyn, to catch the 3-train for a one-hour ride to Smoke’s 106th Street and Broadway location. He moved there from Crown Heights, from which, midway through a 12-day transit strike at the beginning of 1966, he hiked 10½ miles through the snow to the Empire Hotel by Lincoln Center to catch a ride to a Blue Mitchell session for Blue Note at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. When the session was over, Mabern trekked back. “I did it six times that week,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to miss that record date. They said, ‘If you can get here…’ I made it.”
“Harold stayed two or three sets every week,” Porter confirmed over the phone. “I was very encouraged by that. He saw everything. One night he said, ‘Lou Rawls was like you.’ That’s cool coming from a master of the music. I don’t take it lightly. It means more to me than anything.”
Once all the singers signed on, Mabern conferred with each on repertoire, then worked out treatments during two days of recording. Both Porter and Elling confirm Mabern’s relaxed, collaborative attitude. “Unlike many sessions you enter as a hired gun, so to speak, Harold asked what he could do to shape the music around me—what tempo, what key,” said Porter, who sang Oscar Brown’s lyric of “Afro-Blue” and Mabern’s “The Man From Hyde Park.” The latter title references Herbie Hancock, four years Mabern’s junior, reflecting a friendship that developed during Mabern’s 1954-1959 residence in Chicago. “Before I went into the booth, I asked Harold to sing it to me at the piano—to give me the melody, the phrasing,” Porter said. “He sounded so beautiful and tender. It’s a letter to Herbie, and it was cool that he allowed me to sing this personal message.”
“It was super loose in the studio,” said Elling, who sings the blues ballad “Portrait Of Jennie,” scats on “Billie’s Bounce,” and draws on his church background in delivering the 1978 C&W hit “You Needed Me.” “Harold emailed me to ask for the key; when I arrived, I said, ‘OK, let’s just do this.’ Harold and the guys set up the arrangements on the spot, and we ran it down once. Harold, Webber and Farnsworth are top of the food chain; they have the real history in their sound.”
Mabern initially intended “You Needed Me” as a vehicle for Norah Jones, who he describes as “a modern-day Billie Holiday, without trying to be, the way she phrases and lays back.” Her counter-suggestion was “Don’t Misunderstand,” a ballad by Gordon Parks that O.C. Smith stamped as his own on the soundtrack for Shaft, and the Johnny Mercer song, “Fools Rush In,” a 1940 hit for Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey. “I’d played ‘Don’t Misunderstand’ once in the last twenty years,” Mabern said. “I said I’d think about it. Then Norah suggested we do it piano and voice. It was bold of her, but I thought we pulled it off. Key of A-flat. We couldn’t do ‘Fools Rush In’ like Sinatra, who is one of my top three vocalists along with Joe Williams and Nat Cole, so I told Farnsworth to lay down the Poinciana beat.”
He quoted Sinatra, “if you can’t sing in tune, you can’t sing,” in explaining his picks for Jane Monheit. “I’ve always liked the pureness and intonation of her voice, that she knows how to treat a ballad and something up-tempo,” Mabern said. “I figured ‘My One and Only Love’ would match her; later, she told me it was her wedding song. ‘I’ll Take Romance’ hasn’t been done much, and Eydie Gorme had a big hit with it.
For Alexis Cole, Mabern selected his stoic, bittersweet “Such Is Life.” “I learned to write lyrics from being around Bill Lee,” he said, referring to the distinguished bassist-composer to whom he dedicated Afro Blue, along with pianists Billy Wallace and Chris Anderson, also deep influences from Chicago years. Lee befriended Mabern soon after he arrived in town from Memphis, as testified by a Mabern waltz called “Brother Spike,” written to mark the birth of Lee’s son, the film director, and recorded on the eponymous 1959 VeeJay album MJT+3, by the in-vogue Chicago-based combo that exposed Mabern to the national jazz audience.s,
Like Muhal Richard Abrams, his predecessor in the first edition of MJT+3, Mabern is a self-taught pianist. Standing by an old upright at a party a few months before his fifteenth birthday, he watched a girl play a song on only black keys—the title, he learned later, was “I Stuck My Dollar In The Mud”—and then “sat down and played the same song; I just picked it up.” Soon thereafter, he learned “The Honeydripper” and “Perdido,” and started “doodling around.” Within six months, he was gigging with George Coleman and his brother, alto saxophonist Lucian Adams. Mabern’s father, who worked in lumber yard, “raked and scraped up” $60 to buy a piano, on which he applied lessons learned from close observation of pianists Charles Thomas, “who played like Bud Powell,” and told him, “If you think I can play, you’ve got to meet Phineas Newborn.” Newborn, a Tatumesque virtuoso, was then giving lessons in the back room of a local record store and playing in his father’s band at Mitchell’s Hotel, where the likes of B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Ace, Coleman, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Charles Lloyd and Mabern cut their teeth. He watched where Newborn placed his fingers, and emulated.
“He’d play like a big band; I watched him orchestrate,” Mabern said of his autodidactic learning process. “I had a small band with Charles called the Rhythm Bombers, and I’d pick and choose notes very carefully there. With George Coleman and his brother, I made a dollar a night, which was a lot of money. That was the standard, although B.B. King might have made $2-$2.50. You had to track down Sunbeam (Andrew Mitchell), the club-owner, to get that, because he had the money in the cigar box with his 22-caliber pistol.” In keeping with his glass-half-full philosophy, Mabern states, “They treated us good there, like family members. Sunbeam’s wife, Miss Ernestine, made the best chili you could find anywhere.”
Mabern declined a scholarship to Tennessee State University to join Strozier at the American Conservatory of Music, and moved north in August 1954. “The money got tight, but my sister said I should stay and see what I could do,” Mabern says, “It was the best thing that happened to me. I say I got mine from the university of the streets.” He joined trombonist Morris Ellis’ big band, where “I got my reading together,” had private lessons at the conservatory for six months, and embarked on five years of “playing and practicing 12 hours a day.”
“I met Bill Lee at the YMCA at 49th and Michigan,” Mabern reminisced. “From Bill I learned how to orchestrate, how to rearrange standard songs. I heard him play the most beautiful choruses on piano, which he plays as well as he does the bass. At first, he wouldn’t tell me anything, but when he finally gave me the time of day he said, ‘There’s another piano player named Chris Anderson who can show you what to do—and Billy Wallace.’ I couldn’t believe how many songs they knew. They were listening to Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations for Sinatra. When Charlie Parker played at the Beehive in January 1955, with Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles and Bruz Freeman, he was playing all these standards he learned from Big Nick Nicholas that other guys weren’t playing then, like ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance.’ Between sets, Bill and Billy and Chris would call out the changes for Norman that Bird might play next.
“Chris influenced Herbie Hancock, as did Andrew Hill. Chris and Herbie and Ahmad are geniuses in voicing chords, and Billy could play the same way, but he’d play a chord for every note of the melody. That’s where my harmonic concept comes from. Watching Billy, I learned to comp; same chords, more space, less busy.” For his overall attitude to piano expression, though, Mabern cites Jamal, who he became aware of through Booker Little. “I was as impressed with him as with Phineas,” he said. “I’d never heard anyone play with such command and or conceptualize sound like that. ‘Music, Music, Music’ was a corny song. Ahmad said, ‘Not the way I play it.’ Ahmad reintroduced it to us in a stylized, modern way. After ‘Poinciana,’ I knew I wanted to play like that. I tell students that if you approach the piano with anything less than an orchestrational mindset, you’re going to lose out.”
A faculty member at William Paterson University since 1981, Mabern has taught, among others, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Bill Stewart, bassist Doug Weiss, and Alexander, who caught his ear on the first day of the 1987-88 academic year. Twenty-seven years and countless tours and recordings later, Alexander observed that Mabern’s close study of the arranging techniques of Riddle and Don Costa allowed him to “absorb and deeply understand the detailed inner voice movement and potential substitute ideas for all the Songbook tunes.” He continued: “Invariably, when we start playing through any tune I bring him, whatever I thought were the best possible changes, he’s got something better. He likes to comp more than solo, and he’s peerless at setting up the horn player to sound good no matter what they’re doing.”
Which is perhaps why so many singers kept Mabern so busy after the spring of 1961, when he came off the road after a year with Lionel Hampton, and joined Betty Carter. “I played with Betty at Birdland two-three weeks at a time, opposite Coltrane, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, or whoever,” he said. “She taught me the art of playing slow. I also worked opposite Coltrane with Johnny Hartman, who wouldn’t leave home without me. I’m proud to say that’s probably where Coltrane got the idea to record with him. Jimmy Jones and Jerome Richardson recommended me to Joe Williams, which I thought was quite a compliment.” So busy was Mabern that he subbed out singer gigs to then-aspirants Chick Corea and Hancock. “Once I paid Herbie $18, which was a lot,” Mabern said. “Scale was $15; I had a $25 gig.”
In the liner notes for Mabern’s 1993 CD, The Leading Man, the late Mulgrew Miller, a close friend, wrote that “under the hands of Mabern, the piano is challenged to ‘live up to’ its formal name—the piano-forte, for Harold dramatically plays the whole range of dynamics.” On Afro-Blue, as fifty years ago, Mabern recalibrates for singers. “I play from my shoulders, from my whole body, which is why I’m percussive,” Mabern said. “With singers I play with less force, less aggression. I use the soft pedal. You don’t voice the chord with the leading tone. You wait for them to sing a phrase, then fill in the space.”
For all the erudition he brings to any encounter with a piano, Mabern considers himself first and foremost “a blues pianist who understands the philosophy of jazz.” “Coming up in Memphis, we wanted to play bebop,” he said. “But the people had to dance. George Coleman and his brother and I would tell the drummer to keep a shuffle beat for ‘The Hucklebuck,’ and then we’d play the changes to ‘Perdido’ or ‘All The Things You Are.’ That’s how we got over. Gene Harris said, ‘I’m a blues player with chops,’ which is pretty much what I’m saying. I can play what Jamil Nasser called the ‘bone-chillin’ blues,’ I can play boogie-woogie, but I can still play the old ‘Milestones’ or ‘Moose The Mooche.’ I’m never going to stop being a blues pianist.”
“I played with Joe Williams at the Half Note. Jimmy Witherspoon came in first set, and said, ‘Hey, Joe, sing the blues.’ He said, ‘Spoon, it’s too early for the blues.’ Spoon said, ‘It ain’t never too early for the blues.’ Oh, no. I’m always blues first. As someone said, I am the blues.”
Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:
1. Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)
Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him. It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum. It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it. I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.
Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.
2. Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)
Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side. But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.
3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)
I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting. Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau. That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.
4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)
It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.
5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)
Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist. Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.
6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)
Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo! At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.
7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)
I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times. But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician. The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video. But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.
8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)
I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.
9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)
Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh? Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano. There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.
10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)
Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles. There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.
11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)
Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play. But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.
12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)
I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.