Post-bop pianist Harold Mabern has worked with some of jazz’s greatest vocalists — Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams among them. Still spry at age 79, he’s assembled a dream team of top jazz voices from the current generation on Afro Blue, a 10-vocal-, four-instrumental-track romp.
The vocal tracks showcase Mabern’s gifts as a thoughtful accompanist as well as the distinctive, soulful singing of Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole. First at the vocal mic, Porter delivers a delightfully sassy, dramatic take of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” He then marshals masterful storytelling abilities to create a lyrically colorful version of “The Man From Hyde Park,” Mabern’s tribute to Herbie Hancock. Jones’ lushly swinging stroll through “Fools Rush In,” and Monheit’s dreamy, wistful spins of “I’ll Take Romance” and “My One and Only Love” are also noteworthy.
Elling showcases different facets of his artistry, bopping and scatting his way through “Billie’s Bounce” and displaying his penchant for heartfelt balladry on “Portrait of Jenny” and “You Needed Me.” Meanwhile, employing low, crisp intonation, Cole waxes philosophical on the easy-grooving Mabern composition “Such Is Life.”
The instrumental tracks reveal Mabern in command of a long-running quartet with saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. They open the collection with “The Chief,” Mabern’s powerful homage to John Coltrane, which also features trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. And they close it with a salute to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the rumbling, hard-bop-trio jam “Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu.” Throughout a set that encompasses various voices, moods and styles, Mabern and this stellar band provide consistent excellence. —Jonathan Widran