Harold Mabern: Afro Blue

Though elder statesman Harold Mabern’s blocky, aggressive piano style may seem better suited to the small army of horn players he’s worked with-from Miles, Ornette and Freddie Hubbard to George Coleman and Eric Alexander-it’s worth remembering that Mabern’s early career also placed him with Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. At age 78 he remains a sterling vocal accompanist, as demonstrated across this album featuring five of the finest singers around: Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter, Jane Monheit, Norah Jones and Alexis Cole.

Alongside regular trio mates John Webber (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums), Mabern bookends the album with original instrumental tributes, opening with the propulsive “The Chief,” for John Coltrane, with guests Alexander (on tenor) and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and closing with the ice-cool swinger “Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu.”

Porter steps in for another salute, the Mabern-penned “The Man From Hyde Park,” for Herbie Hancock, and a blistering treatment of the title track. Jones shines on “Fools Rush In” and the misty “Don’t Misunderstand.” Monheit’s kittenish allure is gorgeously realized on a lilting “I’ll Take Romance” and a satiny “My One and Only Love.” Evincing strong echoes of Chris Connor, Cole traverses another original, Mabern’s breezily philosophic “Such Is Life.” And Elling, distinctive as ever, helps define three widely diverse tracks: a sizzling, scat-fueled “Billie’s Bounce”; a tenderly reflective “Portrait of Jennie”; and this project’s biggest surprise, a near-anthemic rendering of the Anne Murray hit “You Needed Me.”

Listen to or download this album at iTunes.