Earlier this year jazz pianist Harold Mabern faced the considerable challenge of compressing almost 60 years of playing and recording into a three-week run at the New York jazz club Smoke. A complete retrospective of Mabern’s storied career would have to include all of the albums he’s recorded to date (25+ as a leader and 80+ as a sideman) and then some—most notably his gigging with too many jazz greats to list here and his contributions to hard bop, soul jazz, and post-bop. For all of this heavy lifting Mabern has been dubbed the Iron Man, the moniker that crowns his latest release for Smoke Sessions Records, The Iron Man: Live at Smoke. By the end of the two-disc set listeners will likely agree that Mabern just might be some kind of a jazz superhero.
The album captures select tunes from some of the last sets of the Smoke engagement, when Mabern and his longtime bandmates—tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber, and drummer Joe Farnsworth—were at their freest and most relaxed. On each tune, no matter the pace or mood, the group was locked into the kind of sure grooves that only coalesce after years of playing together. What a choreographic marvel this recording is.
Mabern opens the record with the wet, funky “A Few Miles From Memphis,” his own tune and the title of his debut album as a leader on Prestige Records back in 1968. By the time he closes with another self-penned tune, “Rakin’ and Scrapin,’” the title of his second album, also for Prestige in 1968, he’s burned through some standards (“Almost Like Being In Love”), some traditional blues (“Mr. P.C.”), and some honeyed ballads (“She’s Out Of My Life”). Like the gig, the record runs wide and deep—one listen is hardly enough.
(Reprinted from the January issue of Downbeat magazine.)