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Charles Mingus is but one of the many jazz stars who crossed paths with Charlie Gabriel during his long career. That history resonates on his long-overdue debut record.
Given that his recent release for Sub Pop Records is titled Eighty Nine, also his age when he cut the album, saxophonist and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel isn’t hiding the fact that he’s long in the tooth to be making his debut recording as a leader. His deep grounding in the music is heard in every note he plays, informed by the experiences of a remarkable career. One such experience, he vividly recalls, took place in the late 1940s when, at age 16, he sat in with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and shared the stage with a young bass player named Charles Mingus.
Hampton was headlining the famed Paradise Theatre in Detroit, where Gabriel’s family had moved a couple of years earlier from New Orleans, his birthplace and current home. “My brother Leonard was crazy,” Gabriel says with a chuckle. “He came home and said, ‘Do you want to play with Lionel Hampton?’ Then we went to the theater and knocked on the side door — bang! bang! bang! — and when somebody answered, Leonard said, ‘Tell Lionel Hampton I’ve got the greatest saxophone player in the world!’”
This pitch won Gabriel entry to the venue, and shortly thereafter, he displayed his gifts while Hampton tapped out “Tea for Two” on piano using two fingers. He passed the audition. “I went back that evening and played with the band,” he says. “I played ‘Flying Home,’ which had that solo by [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet and became a standard. It was a blessing.”
Hampton and Mingus — “a wonderful musician and a very fine person,” Gabriel says — are hardly the only notables with whom he’s gigged over the years. The list includes Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson and many other stars, not to mention plenty of relatives. Most of his kinfolk worked as musicians over the years — among them Leonard and his father, Martin Manuel “Manny” Gabriel, a clarinetist and drummer who helped lead assorted family bands that kept the spirit of New Orleans alive in Detroit.
In 2006, Gabriel returned to the Big Easy and joined the iconic Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but he remained close with Leonard, his last living sibling at the time; he died of COVID-19 in October 2020. PHJB bassist and leader Ben Jaffe, who produced 89, saw the impact Leonard’s passing had on Gabriel firsthand, and even though live gigs were off-limits at the time, he knew he had to get him playing again. “That was part of healing,” Jaffe says. “With all the pain of that time, you always turn to music as a way to process life.”
Impromptu sessions with Jaffe and guitarist Joshua Starkman proved to be just the therapy Gabriel needed. The trio focused on tunes that had stood the test of time. “‘Memories of You,’ that one’s by Eubie Blake,” Gabriel points out about the first track on Eighty Nine. “My dad taught me that when I was 11 or 12 or so. And ‘Stardust,’ I have a relationship with that song because of Louis Cottrell, a clarinetist who had a very popular band in New Orleans when I was growing up.”
The recording is highlighted by the sublime “I’m Confessin’,” one of three ditties Gabriel croons in a delightfully casual manner. When asked if he ever took any singing lessons, he laughs. “No training — and what’s funny about that is I don’t pronounce the words the same way someone who’s been trained would. There’s not an impediment in my speech. It’s just the way I talk!”
Gabriel is happy to share credit for the finished album’s quality. “Those things, I leave them up to Benjy, how it came out,” he says, crediting Jaffe, whose parents founded Preservation Hall. “But whatever he did to it sure sounds good to me. I enjoy listening to it myself.” — Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Danny Clinch/Sub Pop Records.