Memphis, Tennessee has been dubbed both the “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll”. But it’s no slouch in the jazz department, either.
In a four-year span from 1934 to 1938, at least half a dozen future jazz luminaries were born there. That mid-’30s crop included trumpeter Booker Little, as well as sax players Hank Crawford, George Coleman, Frank Strozier and Charles Lloyd.
And don’t forget pianist Harold Mabern, the man in the middle, born March 20, 1936. With more than 20 albums under his belt as a leader, he is also one of the most sought-after sidemen in the business.
At nearly 81 years of age, the globe-trotting Mabern is about to make his Whitehorse debut with a quartet that includes Cory Weeds on tenor sax, Julian MacDonough on drums and Michael Glynn on bass.
Weeds, a Vancouver impresario and saxophonist, has known Mabern for about a decade, since first booking him to play the former Cellar Jazz Club, which he ran for 14 years. In 2013, they did a 13-stop tour with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth, before cutting a CD, As of Now.
“We were in the studio for all of about two and a half or three hours, because we had played the music so much we really knew it well,” Weeds says. “It turned out really well, and it led to a couple of other gigs with Harold here in Vancouver, and a couple of gigs in New York, and now we’re doing it again.”
Weeds admits he’s a big admirer of Mabern, whose name may not be a household word outside hardcore jazz circles.
“If you want to be really frank about it, he shouldn’t be playing with me. He should be playing with the best of the best in the world. He should be gracing the covers of magazines and headlining jazz festivals all over the world,” Weeds says.
“But in the last five years, he has become more of a recognizable figure to people. Once people hear him and talk to him, that name will remain in the household forever, because he’s a very engaging human being, both through his personality and his music.”
Weeds says Mabern is “out there doing it, playing with great people and travelling the world.” He also says Mabern has a youthful exuberance that draws people in.
“He’s 80 years old, and he’s got ten times the energy that I do. He loves interacting with people, and he loves talking. He’s this big, gregarious guy who isn’t driven by anything other than the pure desire to make good music.”
Largely self-taught as a pianist, in 1954 Mabern left Memphis for Chicago, where he became a member of Walter Perkins’s MJT+3 ensemble, among other groups.
“Musicians go where the money is, or where the gigs are. Chicago had a very strong jazz scene. A lot of musicians went to Chicago first to kind of cut their teeth before moving to New York.”
Mabern has made his home in New York since 1959, playing with some of the heaviest of jazz heavyweights, including Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, J.J. Johnson, Sarah Vaughn, George Benson and Clark Terry.
One name that particularly stands out is that of hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, with whom he was associated for almost seven years, starting in 1965.
In fact, he was on the bandstand at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village the night of February 19, 1972, when Morgan was fatally shot by his common-law wife during a tiff between sets.
“With Harold, you could be talking about why the sky is blue, you could be talking about Obamacare, or the election, and it inevitably comes back to Lee Morgan and the musical genius that was Lee Morgan,” Weeds says.
“Jazz music is hard for jazz musicians to understand, let alone casual jazz fans who don’t necessarily understand or speak the theory behind what’s happening,” he adds.
“So when you have somebody as engaging as Harold, who really invites them into the music and into what they’re doing, it’s a very special thing.”
Weeds describes the Mabern sound as a unique combination of all the people he’s played with and all the places he’s been, including his Tennessee hometown.
“He’s got this sound that’s so unbelievably powerful, I’m surprised that pianos don’t crumble to dust after he plays them,” Weeds says.
“It’s not even that he plays the piano hard, it’s just that he gets a sound out of a piano that is just unmistakable. I think that’s firmly rooted in him growing up in Memphis with the blues, and playing in those types of bands, where you really had to play the piano.”
The Harold Mabern Quartet performs Sunday, January 29 on the Yukon Arts Centre’s main stage, beginning at 7:30 p.m. It is part of the Jazz on the Wing series sponsored by Jazz Yukon.
For more information, go to yukonartscentre.com.