The Life and Times of Mr. Beautiful

By Bob Weinberg

Musicians draw inspiration from the unlikeliest sources. And the tiniest. Just ask George Cables to explain the title behind his composition “Mr. Anonymouse.” The pianist recently recorded the tune during sessions in February for his latest trio album for the HighNote label — at the time, he was unsure of the album’s title or if the track would even make the final cut. Still, the tale is funny and illuminating, and Cables unspools it gleefully.

Touring with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in the 1970s, Cables and his bandmates stayed in the kinds of hotels they could afford in the days before venues and festivals put them up in style. One such hostelry was a $9-a-night flophouse in Chicago. Entering his room, Cables searched for a safe spot to rest his suitcase, eventually setting it on one of the twin beds. “After a couple of days, I opened my suitcase and out popped this mouse,” he says with a laugh, talking by phone from his home in New York in mid-February. “And he ran around so fast! He ran on top of the baseboard and scurried out of the room before I could get his name. If he’s gonna be my roommate, I wanna know who he is. So, he’s ‘Mr. Anonymouse.’”

In the jazz world, Cables, 70, is anything but “anonymouse.” Best recognized for his five-year stint with saxophonist Art Pepper, he’s also shared bandstands with Art Blakey, Max Roach, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw and Dexter Gordon. In recent years, he’s released several excellent recordings, including the trio albums My Muse and Icons and Inspirations, both for HighNote, and Time and Time Again (Motéma), with the all-star collective The Cookers. This surge of activity followed liver and kidney replacements in 2007, and the loss of his life partner of 28 years, Helen Wray, to cancer in 2012. He dedicated My Muse to her. Wray had instructed Cables not to be too sad after her passing, but rather to celebrate her life. And that’s what he did, particularly with the title tune. “It’s sort of a mischievous piece,” he says. “It describes her sense of humor and mischievous side. It’s a ‘be happy’ piece, a piece that would make you smile.”

Suffused with warmth and good cheer, Cables’ playing frequently induces smiles. Pepper dubbed him “Mr. Beautiful,” for his playing, sure, but also for his geniality on the bandstand and off. Pepper’s decades-long heroin habit had left him with a ruptured spleen, but his skin had always been remarkably thin. As detailed in his autobiography, Straight Life, and in his widow Laurie Pepper’s recent memoir Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman, the saxophonist, who was white, longed for acceptance among his black bandmates, but often felt slighted. Cables kept him on an even keel. “It was easy to have a relationship with Art,” he says. “I would listen to him and converse with him, and try musically to be a good partner and make it easy for him to play. And just be there for him, as a pianist and as a person. I think he appreciated that.”

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