The Smoke Sessions label has just announced the passing of Memphis-born pianist Harold Mabern at the age of 83 on 19 September.
A list of just some of the people in whose bands he worked speaks for itself: Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Harry Edison (who gave him his first job), Archie Shepp, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, J. J. Johnson, Hank Mobley, Max Roach, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean,…
I did a 2014 interview I did with him prior to an appearance at Ronnie Scott’s. He talked through his time playing with Wes Montgomery, and also some of the albums he played on that were of significance to him.
What I remember above all from that conversation, however, was his essential modesty. Although his was the name on the bill, he insisted that the trio was drummer Joe Farnsworth’s. And when I tried to get him to talk about his extraordinary, rhythmically strong, percussive touch, he deflected. “Your touch on the piano is like no one else’s,” his response was: “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.”
He taught for decades at William Patterson College but would describe himself, as ever self-effacingly, as an “advanced student” rather than a teacher. It has been a very great privilege to have heard him live in the past few years. In sadness.