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Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Mabern (Smoke Sessions)

A review of a 2018 live set from the late pianist

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Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Mabern
The cover of Mabern Plays Mabern by Harold Mabern

As hard as it may be to realize that Harold Mabern is no longer walking—and playing—among us, there’s a good chance that the late pianist would be content knowing this live set will serve as a document of his life. Coming from the same sessions as his previous release, The Iron Man: Live at Smoke, it captures a 2018 performance at New York’s Smoke club. This time, Mabern’s quartet—tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber, and drummer Joe Farnsworth—is joined by alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and trombonist Steve Davis. Four of the eight tracks were composed by the pianist, spanning his 51-year career and paying tribute to some of his former associates. The group blows with no inhibitions, and the results frequently last around 10 minutes per track. Not a moment is wasted.

Mabern might be better known as a supporting player, from his tenures with Lee Morgan, Betty Carter, and his student-turned-leader Alexander. Yet he always played with authority that put him at the forefront of the music. Even his comping behind the horns on the 6/8 groove of “Mr. Johnson” sounds delightful on its own. His fast and furious “The Beehive,” which he introduced with Morgan, still sounds complex and aggressive. Conversely, the ballads “It’s Magic” and “Lover Man” reveal that he was just as adept at projecting a more delicate side without losing any credibility. The boogaloo groove of “Rakin’ and Scrapin’” (two things Mabern’s father did to buy his son a piano) seems like the best way to close the set: joyous and funky with a heavy dose of blues. It complements the CD’s cover shot of Mabern mid-thought, smiling philosophically with his hand in the air.

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Eric Alexander Remembers Harold Mabern

Originally Published

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at