Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wes Montgomery and Harold Mabern, Coltrane's "Impressions," March 27, 1965

The great pianist Harold Mabern turned 76 last Tuesday. He's on several of my favorite sides: Grant Green's earliest recordings (with Jimmy Forrest, December 10, 1959), 1964's now-classic Inside Betty Carter and, the subject of today's post, Wes Montgomery's trio dates in Paris and Belgium 1965.  As Thom Jurek describes it for his CD Universe review of the recording of the Paris concert, performed 48 years ago this evening:

Wes Montgomery's 1965 concert at the Theatre des Champs Elysees [let Google translate the French for you, if necessary.--T.F.] in Paris is one of the greatest live dates ever recorded from the decade. Here, Montgomery, pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Jimmy Lovelace, bassist Arthur Harper, and saxophonist Johnny Griffinwho guested on three selections at the end of the gig—tore the City of Light apart with an elegant yet raw and immediate jazz of incomparable musicianship and communication.
Montgomery was literally on fire and Mabern has never, ever been heard better on record.  From the opening bars of "Four on Six," Montgomery is playing full-on, doing a long solo entirely based on chord voicings that is as stellar as any plectrum solo he ever recorded.  Mabern's ostinato and legato phrasing is not only blinding in speed, but completely gorgeous in its melodic counterpoint.  And while the bop and hard bop phrasing here is in abundance, Montgomery does not leave the funk behind.  It's as if he never played with George Shearing, so aggressive is his playing here.   
Nowhere is this more evident than in the tonal inquiry that goes on in the band's read of John Coltrane's "Impressions," in which the entire harmonic palette is required by Montgomery's series of staggered intervals and architectural peaks in the restructuring of the head.  Likewise, in Griffin Montgomery finds a worthy foil on "'Round Midnight" and the medley of "Blue and Boogie/West Coast Blues." Montgomery assumes the contrapuntal role as Mabern floods the bottom with rich, bright chords and killer vamps in the choruses. Highly recommended. 

A few weeks later in April of 1965, Montgomery and Mabern appeared (again with Arthur Harper on bass) on Belgian television and, thanks to YouTube, we can get a glimpse of what Mr. Jurek enthused over:

Although we lost Wes on June 15, 1968, Harold Mabern has been teaching several generations of jazz musicians at William Paterson University. He also continues to perform, often in ensembles led by tenor saxist (and one of his former WPU students) Eric Alexander.  Last year he gave a priceless interview in which he tells about his being "at the right place at the right time" in late 'fifties and early 'sixties in Chicago and New York (including his first Birdland gig) and, more touchingly, about the trauma of witnessing the murder of his friend, Lee Morgan (at Slug's jazz club forty years ago last February 19).  

Simply put, Mabern has played with nearly all of the jazz greats who were his contemporaries. But now he's one of the greats with whom it is the privilege of others to play.  A belated Happy Birthday, Harold!  Thanks for keeping the flame.