HAROLD MABERN, the legendary pianist born in Memphis in 1936, makes a rare appearance in London, on January 21st at Ronnie Scott’s, with his regular trio. Above he plays his own classic tune Edward Lee (Lee Morgan’s first and middle names), from the 2003 album “Don’t Know Why” . It has many of the hallmarks of his very individual style of playing.
Sebastian Scotney interviewed him by telephone just before Christmas. Harold Mabern spoke with clarity and astonisingly sharp recall about some of the key phases in his career:
London Jazz News: Who’s in the trio you’re bringing to London?
Harold Mabern: I’m not bringing them, it’s the drummer Joe Farnsworth‘s Trio, he’s bringing me (laughs) and John Webber. I’ve been playing with these two men for the last 20 years off and on.
LJN: One biography says you were you a drummer before you were a pianist. Is that right?
HM: Not a drummer like in jazz I was playing drums in a marching band . That was in high school. I wanted to play an instrument so I switched to trumpet and I couldn’t get a sound, so I switched baritone horn, all that was all when I was in High School
LJN: So how old were you when you started the piano?
HM: I was fifteen-and -a-half nearly sixteen years old. I’m a self-taught piano player, I didn’t take music.
LJN: Your touch on the piano is like no one else’s.
HM: That’s because I listened to the right people, I listened Phineas Newborn Jr. and Ahmad Jamal, plus perhaps God-given talent. If I have a touch…. I appreciate the compliment but I never think about it like that . I just play the best way I can whenever I play
LJN: And you knew Ahmad Jamal, right?
HM: When I moved to Chicago in 1954, that’s when I met Mr Jamal.
LJN: And he’s a generous man?
HM: Yes he’s very generous, very kind, but he doesnt go out and pick up anybody. You’ve got to earn his respect, his attention. I’m still trying to do that, earn attention through my music He and Phineas Newborn are my two favourite piano players of all time.
LJN: And you worked with Wes Montgomery?
HM: We started working in 1964 and I worked with him up until the time he passed away which was in 1968
LJN: When you look back, was that something special?
HM: Yes it was special, because he heard something that he liked in my playing. You’ve got a lot of piano players in New York City. That was a compliment to me, for me. Plus it was very challenging to play with him, he didn’t read music, he would play songs in any key, and I would have to try to match what he was doing.
LJN: And there are some amazing singers you’ve worked with..Betty Carter Johhny Hartman….
HM: …. Dakota Staton, Gloria Williams Etta James, Ernestine Anderson Joe Williams. I was blessesd to be have played with all those wonderful singers . You have to learn how to be a great jazz pianist, you have play in many different styles. It was all at Birdland, it was with John Cltrane and people.
LJN: Harry Edison was someone who brought you on?
HM: I got the gig with Harry Edison the very first night in New York City, November 21st 1959. . I saw Cannonball Adderley in front of Birdland and he asked me if I wanted a gig. I said “sure” and hhe took me downstairs. The place was packed, nothing but piano players there. Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly Sonny Clark. Tommy Flanagan was playing with Harry Sweet Edison but he was getting ready to leave. Cannonball introduced me to Harry Sweets Edison and he asked me if I wanted to sit in. He didn’t even ask me what I knew, he just called a tune. The song was “Getting to be a habit with you.” I sat in and I played it. I fumbled around the first time. Second time he hired me on the spot. That was my first night in New York City.
LJN: Do you ever go back and listen to your records?
HM: Very rarely. You hear so much when you’re recording. Then you get the test pressing just before the record comes out. So by the time the record comes out you’ve heard it. You’re ready to move on and do something else. Because you realise you could have done better, so you’re ready to do the next one because you’re re trying to redeem yourself. I listen to bits and pieces. I’ve got ten records right now that I’ve been on and not listened to. I guess it’s like that with most musicians.
LJN: For people who don’t know your playing what should they listen to, or what records are important to you?
HM: I would say the record I did with Hubert Laws and Lee Morgan with Buster Williams and Idris Muhammad called Greasy Kid Stuff.
And the first record I did, I did it with George Coleman A Few Miles to Memphis with Bill Lee and Walter Perkins those two are very important to me.
There are other records that are important to me as well. The records I did with Eric Alexander , I enjoyed those records.
One of my real favourites is the The Gigolo with Lee Morgan because that’s the only time I got to record with Wayne Shorter
And Straight Street (1989) with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette
But I mainly when I’m at home I’m listening to other things: contemporary pop, R & B. Stevie Wonder, Shania Twain, country and western music singer. She’s blessed to have a beautiful voice. And Sinatra – when I moved to Chicago being around Spike Lee’s father Bill Leewe used to listen to a lot to Frank Sinatra. I like to listen to orchestrations with singers.
LJN: How is it in the trio? You and Joe Farnsworth are both such positive rhythmic players…
HM: I love it because Joe Farnsworth is probably the best drummer playing jazz. I love those guys we have a great rapport He was one of my students at William Patterson College even though I didn’t teach him in the ensembles, but he was there – with Eric Alexander. He’s on top of his game. He understands the whole philosophy of the drums because he studied with two great teachers, Art Taylor and Alan Dawson. Alan Dawson taught everyone Tony Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jeff Tain Watts – all those great drummers studied with Alan Dawson at Berklee . I don’t have to rehearse with those guys. I just play and they know what to do.
LJN: And you have a good fan base in Japan?
HM: I went for eight days back in September, with a drummer who had worked with Hank Jones for two years, Lee Pearson and a bassist who’s studied at Julliard, Russell Hall. Everywhere we went it was a sell-out.
LJN: And when were you last in London
HM: The last time was about 2 ½ yrs ago with Vincent Herring, Eric Alexander and Joris Dudli, we played one night at Ronnie Scott’s.
LJN: And do you have particular memories of London?
HM: I remember it was cold and rainy and damp! Other than that it was an enjoyable trip
LJN: Thank you for your time, and we look forward to January 21st