Harold Mabern Trio Live at Smalls 2/21/18 (by Nicole Glover)

PERSONNEL: Harold Mabern (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums)

SET LIST: Open Sesame (Hubbard), F Blues, Daahoud (Brown), Cherokee (Noble), Do it Again (Becker/Fagen)

HIGHLIGHTS: Mabern connects the dots in American music. He plays it all and talks about it all, too.

Harold Mabern is legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of repertoire: Who else from his generation offers a set list of Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and Steely Dan? He’s played with everyone and still has his ear to the ground, often leading his own trio featuring Joe Farnsworth on drums and a rotating cast of skillful young bassists including Paul Sikivie.

The set started with Hubbard’s “Open Sesame,” with a great, driving energy that is always characteristic of Mabern’s groups. His powerful touch and melodic use of quartal harmony generated much excitement in the crowded club, and Paul Sikivie’s bass solo featured effortless motivic idea development with a beautiful sound. The trio then launched into a swinging blues in F. Mabern is deeply connected to his Memphis blues background, and there is a singing, spiritual quality to his playing. Farnsworth had a memorable solo feature, creating his own call-and-response melodies.  Mabern chose to play Brown’s “Daahoud” as a walking ballad,  showcasing the trio’s sense of phrasing and groove. Mabern’s cadenza was in the tradition of Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn Jr, where exceptional virtuosity meets a deep blues consciousness. A ridiculously burning “Cherokee” is a staple in Mabern’s repertoire and his particular arrangement is notorious – each “A” section goes up a half step, with the bridge played in the key of the second “A.”

Professor Mabern loves to share his knowledge and commitment to community. He gently asked the audience to keep George Cables in their prayers, and discussed their mutual love for Wynton Kelly. He praised Ahmad Jamal, “My main man,” admiring Jamal’s ability to, “Always find the right note.” He informed us that it was Tadd Dameron’s, Nina Simone’s, and Joe Farnsworth’s birthday; naturally, the room sang “Happy Birthday” to the drummer. Farnsworth was a former student, and Mabern even went so far to namecheck other former drum students, including Bill Stewart, Tyshawn Sorey, Johnathan Blake Jr., and Mark Guiliana, all of whom he praised for doing “big things, everything under the sun!” No topic seems to escape Mabern: The great tenor players out of Chicago, his favorite chord substitutions, even Perry Como.

The celebration of all styles of music ended with a feel-good, boogaloo version of the Steely Dan tune, “Get Back”, which had all of Smalls grinning ear to ear. Seeing Mabern play is an essential rite of passage for a New York musician.

— by Nicole Glover