I’m a day late for acknowledging the 77th birthday of the wonderful, important pianist George Cables, but still wanted to take the opportunity to shine a light on a few of the many wonderful moments in his discography. This was not an easy list to narrow down, and I strived for variety, both musical and chronological. Please feel free to spotlight some of your own favorites in the comments.
1 ) “If You’re Not Part of the Solution You’re Part of the Problem” from At the Lighthouse by Joe Henderson (1970)
This track (initially released in the ‘70s as the title track of an album) epitomizes the nexus of nasty electric funk (buoyed here by the pocket of Ron McClure’s electric bass and the backbeat of Lenny White on drums with Tony Waters on conga) and hip, modern soloing (with Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw featured). George, on electric piano, is at the center of it all, both with his funky accompaniment and his own percussive solo. There are many lovely examples of George playing with Joe and with Woody, and it’s inspiring to hear them all together.
2 ) “Skylark” from Sonny Rollins’ Next Album by Sonny Rollins (1972)
It would be pretty easy to populate a Top 10 list with just George Cables ballad performances, but there at least needs to be one. I am particularly fond of this epic track, which begins and ends with long passages of solo saxophone but in between leaves room for a full chorus of florid yet elegant piano soloing as well as some of George’s signature sensitivity as an accompanist.
3 ) “Moment’s Notice” from Manhattan Symphonie by Dexter Gordon (1978)
My first exposure to George came when I was in college, through his performance of “Body and Soul” with Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. That knocked me out and then my friend Jeff Grace (now a wonderful film scorer/composer) hipped me to this album, the tape (yes, tape) of which I literally wore out. The full quartet (also featuring Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden) is all featured and I remember being particularly amazed by how relaxed they all sound in spite of this being a particularly challenging tune to play.
4 ) “Voodoo Lady” from Cables’ Vision (1979)
As if a deliberate segue from the vamp section of the previous tune on the list, this Cables original revolves around an infectious tropical groove laid down by drummer Peter Erskine. This whole album is gorgeous and this tune also has the bonus of featuring great solos by two of George’s most important employers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
5 ) “Isn’t She Lovely” from Goin’ Home by Art Pepper and George Cables (1982)
It was hard not to include something from Art Pepper’s fiery and influential recordings from the Village Vanguard (especially in light of the recent passing of bassist George Mraz), but the intimacy of their duets in Art’s last studio sessions is a different kind of special. George lays it down perfectly here for Art’s solos on both alto saxophone and clarinet and gets in some hip soloing of his own.
6 ) “Blue Monk” from Epistrophy (Live at Bimbo’s 365 Club / San Francisco) by Charlie Rouse (1988)
It’s particularly challenging to evoke the spirit of Thelonious Monk in a way that is reverent and yet not based on superficial imitation. When I taught a course on Monk and Charles Mingus last semester through Wesleyan University’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program, I chose this track for the course playlist because, above and beyond Charlie Rouse’s unassailable relationship with Monk’s music, George’s stunning playing here offers a clinic in how this can be done.
7 ) “Helen’s Song” from Cables Fables (1991)
This utterly gorgeous composition, composed for George’s wife, is buoyed by a Latin-flavored groove underpinned by his trio-mates Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. In the trio setting George shines with his inventive and authoritative playing.
8 ) “Tanya” from A Letter to Dexter (2004)
A tribute to his former employer, George is heard on this record in a trio with two fellow members of that band, Rufus Reid (who slays the melody on bass on this one) and drummer Victor Lewis. George and Rufus played on a recording of this swinging, moody Dexter original a quarter century prior and while it’s hard to live up to the standard of that one, they do just that.
9 ) “But He Knows” from My Muse (2012)
After his wife Helen’s tragic passing, George put together this album (in a trio with Victor Lewis, again, and bassist Essiet Essiet) as a loving tribute. This moody waltz, aside from being part of the album’s deep emotional potency, also demonstrates George’s mastery of touch and of modern harmony.
10 ) “AKA Reggie” from Look Out! by The Cookers (2021)
2021 has been a heck of a year for George as a recording artist, with another trio album under his own name as well as appearances on excellent new releases by Nicole Glover, Willie Jones III and Roni Ben-Hur. My choice is this slow-simmering track from the latest album by The Cookers – since Wayne Escoffery hipped me to this song (which he recorded as well) it has been one of my favorite George Cables compositions and it’s great to hear it here with multiple horns, including a feature for saxophonist Donald Harrison prior to George’s own impeccable solo.