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By most metrics, pianist Harold Mabern is a jazz legend. His discography is vast and influential. He’s toured alongside giants like Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery and Sarah Vaughan. Since 1981 he has served as an instructor at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, where he’s helped to cultivate a generation of talented young players, from up-and-coming saxophonist Roxy Coss to MacArthur Fellowship-winning drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Still, Mabern’s most legendary quality might just be his endurance.
At 82, the pianist recently released his 26th album as a leader. Titled Iron Man: Live at Smoke (Smoke Sessions), the two-disc release is packed with highlights from Mabern’s three-week, 63-set residency at Manhattan’s Smoke jazz club in December 2017.
Musically, Iron Man functions as a retrospective of Mabern’s career, which extends from the rough-and-tumble clubs of Memphis, where the pianist was born and raised, to the grand concert halls of New York City. It was this broad musical exposure, says Mabern, speaking by phone from his home in Queens, New York, that led to the development of his signature style. “In Memphis, we had to play the boogie-woogie and the blues, even though all we wanted to play was bebop. Only later did I realize that having to play the blues was a blessing, because you can teach some of these other styles, but you can’t teach the blues.”
Fittingly, the blues informs much of the music on Iron Man, which includes several Mabern originals as well as covers of iconic tunes by Benny Golson, John Coltrane, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Mabern is ably accompanied on this outing by bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth and former student, saxophonist Eric Alexander.
As Mabern continues working through his eighth decade, he has yet to be named a “jazz master” by the National Endowment for the Arts — an oversight that the pianist addresses with characteristic wit by alluding to one of his idols, Duke Ellington, who, at 66, was controversially denied the Pulitzer Prize for music. “It’s like Duke said,” Mabern jokes, “they must not want me to become too famous too soon.”
Regardless of whether Iron Man ends up being Mabern’s crowning achievement and perhaps the album that finally leads to his enshrinement as a Jazz Master, the pianist shows no signs of stopping. And that, above all, is a distinctive achievement worth celebrating. —Brian Zimmerman