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 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.