Tonight will mark the homecoming of one of Memphis' greatest sons, pianist Harold Mabern. At a spry 82, Mabern is still playing in top form, mining the rich hard bop vein that he's mastered for sixty odd years. A longtime faculty member at William Paterson University, Mabern has in recent decades recorded and toured with his former student, the tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander
. Alexander will join him tonight for a concert at Rhodes College's McNeill Concert Hall
, alongside John Webber (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums).
Mabern, like so many of the city's jazz giants, studied at Manassas High School, and learned to emulate Phineas Newborn, Jr. before venturing to Chicago in the mid-1950s. There, he studied at a conservatory for a few months and was influenced by the work of Ahmad Jamal, but was primarily self-taught from that point on. In Chicago, he worked with other Manassas alumni like Frank Stozier, Booker Little, and George Coleman. Many of these Memphis players moved on to New York by the decade's end, and Mabern was no exception.
In Chicago, he became integral to the hard bop scene, with his muscular style (growing naturally from his early interest in drums) and his roots in Memphis blues perfectly complementing the hard bop movement's love of groovy R&B and soul. This continued in New York, where he worked with practically every player of note, including Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis (briefly), Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, and many others. His 1968 debut on Prestige, A Few Miles from Memphis
, was a solid disc featuring homie George Coleman. Since then, he's led sessions for over two dozen albums, not to mention his many appearances as a sideman.
Indeed, he shines in the latter role, being a consummate ensemble player who combines the inventive chord clusters of, say, McCoy Tyner with more horn-like solos, always packing a strong rhythmic punch. Even his ventures as a band leader become showcases for all the players involved.
Fifty years after his solo debut, he remains grounded in the hard bop tradition, and may be the best example of how versatile and open to innovation that genre's marriage of bop, blues, and gospel can be. On last year's To Love and Be Loved
(Smoke Sessions Records), he mines familiar hard bop territory, but with surprises along the way. Soulman Oscar Brown's “Dat Dere” would seem ripe for a hard bop treatment, but in Mabern's hands it becomes a solo exercise in stride piano. Miles Davis' “So What” gets a kick in the ass from the band, revved up to near-frantic levels via Eric Alexander's playing.
All told, Mabern continues to innovate, even as he stays grounded in his hometown roots. Tonight's show is a must-see for any Memphis jazz fan, sure to hold plenty of delights and surprises as Mabern continues to walk the line between classic and cutting-edge.