Harold Mabern, who joined the ancestors yesterday, was a multifacetedly important figure in the development of jazz (and in my own musical consciousness). He played on hundreds of sessions by the important musicians of the 1960s forward (including classic sessions by Betty Carter, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, and Jackie McLean in addition to those cited below, not to mention his unrecorded stint in Miles Davis’ group). More specifically he was one of the dominant forces during a particularly fertile time in Memphis, coming up alongside George Coleman, Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, Frank Strozier, Jamil Nasser, and others.
Perhaps more significant is his role as the gap-bridger and torch-bearer in a particular Memphis-based lineage of jazz piano (which happens to be the lineage that has influenced me more than any other, with no shade to Detroit or any other “school”). Taking the innovations and unique (yes, I said it) soulfulness of Phineas Newborn, Jr. and combining it with the modernity of McCoy Tyner and others, he delivered that sound to the next generation of pianists in this lineage, particularly James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and Donald Brown (and subsequently Geoff Keezer, who part of that circle). He did this both through modeling this synthesis in his own playing and through direct friendship and mentorship, and between that and his decades of teaching at William Paterson University, I dare say there is a vital part of what jazz piano is today that would be hard to imagine without Harold’s stewardship.
This was a challenging list to narrow down, and I left off a lot of wonderful recordings, in most cases choosing to prioritize things that are in print. They are presented in chronological order.
1 ) “T.B. Blues” by Josh White (recorded 1961) from The House I Live In
You can’t talk about Mabes without talking about the blues, of course, but that’s most often on display in a jazz context. Here you get to hear him lay it down in a more straight folk blues setting, accompanying the groundbreaking Josh White. The sessions with White also represent the first of several dozen recordings on which we get to hear Harold side by side with one of his closest friends and most important and frequent collaborators, saxophonist George Coleman, along with longtime associate Bill Lee (best known for his writing and for siring a famous son, Spike, but an important and accomplished bassist in his own right).
2 ) “Richie’s Dilemma” by Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet (recorded 1962) from Here and Now
This (following several currently out of print MJT + 3 records) represents one of the earliest recordings of an original composition of Harold’s, with this underappreciated incarnation of the Jazztet, also featuring Grachan Moncur, III, Herbie Lewis, and Roy McCurdy. Grooving Latin sections and hard swing are juxtaposed in Mabes’ soulful melody and the fiery soloing across the board.
3 ) “You Go To My Head” by Lee Morgan (recorded 1965) from The Gigolo
This is one of my go-to tracks for 1960s Blue Note funky acoustic jazz (more so, even than Lee’s more celebrated “Sidewinder” and “Rumproller”), with Lee’s soulful playing and Wayne Shorter’s snaky melodies atop a totally irresistible groove provided by Billy Higgins, Bob Cranshaw, and Mabes, who also gets a lyrical, understated solo in there.
4 ) “The Loud Minority” by Frank Foster (recorded 1972) from The Loud Minority
I first checked this album out in my 20s because of the prominent involvement of Ted Dunbar, but as much as I dig Ted’s (and Frank’s, and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s) searing work on the title track, I have to say the highlight is the gnarly, rocking piano solo that Harold throws down in the middle.
5 ) “What’s Goin’ On” by artist (recorded 1977) from What’s Goin’ On
Harold’s partnership with alto saxophonist Frank Strozier is another example of a longstanding and, up through the 1970s, prolific collaboration with a childhood chum from Memphis. There are recordings going all the way back to 1959, but I’m especially fond of their mid-70s work together, particularly on Variety Is the Spice by drummer Louis Hayes and this album.This searing modern waltz rendition of Marvin Gaye’s signature song features Hayes and Stafford James.
6 ) “Dat Dere” by artist (recorded 1985) from Joy Spring
To say this solo piano track “has it all” might be hyperbole, but boy does it have a lot. Some blues, some gospel, some modern harmonies, some Ahmad Jamal quotes, some contemplative rubato, some hard swing.
7 ) “Soul Eyes” by George Coleman (recorded 1987) from At Yoshi’s
Here’s George Coleman again, another of the many instances that these two inexorably tied musicians made a whole greater than the already-substantial sum of the parts. This whole album reliably induces smiles and toe-tapping, but this rendition of Mal Waldron’s best-loved song is downright epic. Harold’s over four minute solo begins with a rhapsodic solo piano turn and evolves from there.
8 ) “Jeannine” (recorded 1995) from For Phineas
This is a duo record with the wonderful Geoff Keezer. On a symbolic level it represents a sharing (if not passing) of the torch of this particular pianistic lineage. But this list isn’t about empty symbolism, this music swings like nobody’s business and demonstrates how sensitive two-piano interplay can be. The “tiebreaker” in choosing this is that it’s in print, so you can check it out NOW, which is sadly not true at this moment of the important recordings by the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, pairing these two with James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and (after the first album) Donald Brown.
9 ) “Con Alma” by Steve Davis (recorded 1997) from Crossfire
Saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth were (boy it’s weird to make this past tense) by far Harold’s most frequent collaborators of his last quarter century; I counted at least 35 albums with these three together, and this is one of my favorites (albeit under the baton of the wonderful trombonist Steve Davis). Mabes is well-showcased, as the clever arrangement at a burning tempo starts with some lyrical solo piano before the band throws down, with Harold soloing first. The track also features bassist Nat Reeves (who “only” appears on about a dozen recordings with Harold, Eric, and Joe).
10 ) “Edward Lee” by Jimmy Cobb (recorded 2018) from This I Dig of You
What better way to wrap up the list than with a track on Harold’s last recording session (at least the last one out there now), playing one of his best-loved compositions (and debatably my personal favorite). This hard-swinging track was recorded a month shy of Mabes’ 83rd birthday and he grooves here, both soloing and comping for guitarist Peter Bernstein and bassist John Webber (himself a veteran of over 20 sessions with Harold), as energetically, tastefully, and convincingly as ever.