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01/24/13

Harold Mabern
Mr. Lucky: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
HighNote Records

Brisk, buoyant and gimmick-free, this straightahead quartet date is as unpretentiously satisfying as that first swig of cold beer after a hard day’s work. In the liner notes to Mr. Lucky, pianist Harold Mabern proclaims Sammy Davis Jr. to be “the greatest performer ever,” and this beaming tribute brims with the innocent insouciance of that Rat Pack era of the 1950s and ’60s, when Davis palled around Vegas with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Mabern, now 76, was just entering adulthood.

The lead soloists here, Mabern and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, are both master craftsmen of underrated artistry, their stylistic conservatism camouflaging their creative refinement of the blues and hard-bop idioms. Joined by their likeminded and frequent cohorts in the rhythm section—drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber—on a project dear to Mabern’s heart, they set their intuitions on high alert and allow their expertise and shared musical experience to hone their ensemble interplay. As a result, precious few records swing so efficiently and reliably as Mr. Lucky.

Most of the material here is not automatically associated with Davis, who was more of an all-around entertainer than a musician. But on the relatively iconic “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” both Mabern and Farnsworth burst from the gate with joyous energy, while Alexander gradually builds the sort of gusto implied by the song’s credo over the course of three solos. Mabern is also ecstatic—his right hand trilling, flecks of New Orleans stride spangled on his Memphis funk-soul-blues-bop amalgam—on “As Long as She Needs Me” and the finger-snapping title track. Sans Alexander, he lets the ballad breathe on “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” a somber interlude that reminds us how segregation and accusations of being a racial sellout besmirched some of the luster of Davis’ celebrity. But as the album title implies, Mabern prefers to honor his hero with music that puts the wind in your hair and tempts you to engage in a little soft-shoe celebration.

Originally published in December 2012
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