Harold Mabern: To Love and Be Loved (Smoke Sessions)

Thomas Conrad's review of album by 81-year-old veteran pianist

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Cover of Harold Mabern album To Love and Be Loved

If you are known in your circle as a serious jazz fan, people will often ask for album recommendations. They say things like, “I would like to get into jazz but I don’t know where to start.” Refer them to Harold Mabern’s new record.

To introduce neophytes to the art form, you need jazz that is real but accessible. To Love and Be Loved is high-level blood-and-guts jazz, centered in the modern-mainstream tradition, with few barriers to entry. The program is Jazz 101: standards (“I Get a Kick Out of You”); hard-bop anthems (Lee Morgan’s “The Gigolo”); modal jazz (“So What”); funk (“Dat Dere”); ballads (“My Funny Valentine”). There are two kinds of blues: quick (Eric Alexander’s “The Iron Man”) and not (Gene Ammons’ “Hittin’ the Jug”). The album’s most important qualification to serve as a primer is that, at all tempos, it swings like crazy.

Mabern, 81, plays magisterial piano. His touch is hard and clean. His solos are all balanced, elegant, complete forms, even when he burns (McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Glimpse”). Alexander operates powerfully, in his clarion, classic tenor saxophone sound, most often in a headlong charge, ideas piling on top of one another, like on the title track. But he can also render steely, unsentimental versions of poignancy (“My Funny Valentine”). Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix plays on three tracks and smokes them.

The drummer is 88-year-old Jimmy Cobb. Mabern and Cobb first played together in 1963, in a short-lived Miles Davis band with saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Strozier and bassist Ron Carter. There has to be a tiny group of people still alive who heard this fleeting group in person. You hope some of them will find this album, because for them it will be personal, the completion of a circle. (Full disclosure: This reviewer is one of those people. March 1963, on spring break from college. The Black Hawk, San Francisco. Fake I.D.)

Preview, buy or download songs from the album To Love and Be Loved by Harold Mabern on iTunes.

Read Mike Shanley’s Overdue Ovation profile of Harold Mabern.