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REVIEW: Harold Mabern Trio at Ronnie Scott’s

Harold Mabern at Ronnie Scott’s
Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott’s

Harold Mabern Trio 
(Ronnie Scott’s, 21st January 2015. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Just as Harold Mabern‘s words in our interview just before Christmas seemed to bring the history of jazz so vividly to life, so his every touch of the piano speaks with authority and authenticity of a piano tradition with deep roots. There are acknowledged influences from both Phineas Newborn Jr. and from Ahmad Jamal, but Mabern is his own man, a highly individual player.

Can a written review explain or even describe the magic of the Memphis-born player’s piano sound? Not really. Adjectives (bright-toned, percussive, decisive, emphatic) do help a bit, and Carl Hyde’s great picture (above) of those strong hands poised to strike the keyboard helps….but doesn’t take you the whole way. Yes, you have to be there, hear it and marvel at how it happens.

One highlight last night came with the most unexpected item, Sting’s Fragile, played as an acknowledgement to the fact that Mabern was playing a gig …sort of vaguely somewhere near where Sting came from…. (Birmingham? he asked), and played as the second set calmer/opener. It was poetic, lived, poised, beautiful, calmly stated, and with no jazz soloing in sight. Daahoud was played as ballad, and as an affectionate tribute to “the most perfect trumpet player” Clifford Brown. Mabern loves springing surprises, knows how to shift the mood and the narrative with masterly panache, and had more to give till the end of the show, not just playing but also singing a powerful and soulful blues as the first encore.

Joe Farnsworth at Ronnie Scott’s
Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott’s

If Mabern is so proudly self-taught, his rhythm cohort is exceptionally schooled. There were quite a few drummers in the house last night, and they had – presumably – come out to catch Joe Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a student of Alan Dawson, the same teacher who taught Tony Williams, and every one of the virtues which Tony Williams talks about in this remarkable lecture from 1989 were there in the drummer’s playing, in particular that deep knowledge of the contours of tunes which gave crispness to everything from the sillinesses of El Jarabe Tapatio, (better known as the Mexican Hat-Dance) to his drum feature Bye Bye Baby. As Mabern said, ribbing him: “Joe Farnsworth has fast hands, we have to give him a chance to show off.”

John Webber at Ronnie Scott’s Photo credit: Carl Hyde/ Ronnie Scott’s

The suave and unflappable John Webber has a completely balanced stance on the instrument, and his classical left hand shape looked to me like the living text-book, again well caught in Carl Hyde’s photo here.

Ronnie’s had taken an informed risk, but the club was completely full, and everybody, and especially those who were able to stay till the final solo encore, Bobby Timmons’ Dat Dere,in the darkness, had a genuine treat.

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