Fifty-four years after his death, John Coltrane remains one of the jazz world’s most influential figures. The saxophonist’s constant search for new direction, explosive energy and depth of achievement remain standards of excellence for many jazz musicians. Recorded live at New York City’s Smoke jazz club a year and a half before pianist Harold Mabern’s 2019 passing, a stellar sextet provides additional evidence of Trane’s long-term effects. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth and, of course, Mabern draw on Coltrane’s example as a touchstone of sophistication and intensity.
Six compositions and one show tune are artfully deconstructed by Mabern’s well-arranged sextet, breathing new life into early Trane classics “Straight Street” and “Blue Trane”; mid-career repertoire “Naima,” “Dahomey Dance” and “My Favorite Things”; and later-composed fare “Impressions” and “Dear Lord.”
Crowd reaction may have caused some tempi to burn faster than usual, but new grooves also apply distinction. Originally taken as a slow ballad, “Naima” receives a jaunty Latin update. Likewise “Dear Lord,” which debuted in loping mid-tempo. Perennial crowd-pleaser “My Favorite Things” opens rubato with a masterfully improvised solo piano intro. Webber and Farnsworth then enter like gangbusters, showing indebtedness to Coltrane’s 1960s hyper-drive rhythm section. Expert solos by Herring, Alexander and Webber emphasize the tune’s major-minor harmonic appeal with Farnsworth soloing freely before the re-introduction of the melody.
The modal strains of “Impressions,” taken at breakneck speed, feature solid motivic blowing by trombonist Davis. But tenorist Alexander is the man in the hot seat, inviting comparisons to Coltrane at every turn. To his credit, Alexander plays Alexander, and plays him well. Of course, Trane-isms are slyly inserted, including a quote (on “Dahomey Dance”) from Coltrane’s solo on a 1960 Miles Davis European tour recording that may only jump out at Trane-ophiles. But even without specific historic references, Mabern’s latest posthumous release is certainly a worthy tribute. — James Rozzi