Thursday, April 23, 2015
Harold Mabern: Afro Blue - DownBeat
While a majority of the Smoke Sessions Records releases have been recorded live at the Smoke Jazz Club in Harlem, pianist Harold Mabern's first for the fairly new label was not. The heavyweight vocal lineup includes Kurt Elling and Jane Monheit but alas they did not all crowd the stage for a swingin' affair. Instead, this disc is the result of two days in a recording studio with each guest performing on a couple of tunes before relinquishing the microphone to the next headlining vocalist. The band feels restrained and often the arrangements don't feel challenging enough but throughout Mabern's piano is strong.
If the title of this album is based on its best track, then Mabern made the right choice. Gregory Porter is the guest vocalist for "Afro Blue," summoning a rich baritone over relentless punches from drummer Joe Farnsworth. The drums don't shine any brighter than on this track. They are unhinged and driving, serving as great inspiration for Eric Alexander's breathless tenor solo. The rest of the album never approaches the joyous intensity of Mabern's persistent riff and Farnsworth's attention-grabbing fills. An instrumental version of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" holds a little too closely to the original, while "You Needed Me" features gospel richness from Mabern and a poppy horn riff that results in a little too much "lite" sound.
Harold Mabern @ DownBeat