Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Kirk MacDonald and Harold Mabern amaze, charm and inspire The Jazz Room

WATERLOO ON., Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 --- Harold Mabern finishes a set, stands up from the piano bench, walks across the stage and starts talking into the mic about John Coltrane.

A legend talking about a legend.

It was another milestone moment in The Jazz Room last Sunday. The 78-year-old Mabern continues performing jazz-blues piano at the very highest level. For this gig Mabern played with Toronto-tenor sax sensation Kirk MacDonald.  There was no sheet music and no charts on the stage for three sets of straight-ahead jazz.

Mabern and MacDonald just finished the second set with Moment's Notice by Coltrane. It was featured on the 1957 album Blue Train and since became a jazz standard. Mabern wanted to talk a little about both Coltrane and the song.

"John William Coltrane, let me tell you something folks. I brag about this, I had the pleasure of knowing that man, and playing opposite him night-after-night," Mabern says.

"John William Coltrane was almost like being a saint.  If all of us had met John Coltrane there would be no racism, no muggings or whatever, because he was truly a man of peace," Mabern says.  "I was already a pretty good person, but he made me even better. God bless John William Coltrane. You should applaud that folks, he was one of a kind."

After the applause fades, Mabern continues with his story about how the song Moment's Notice was named. The great trombone playaer Curtis Fuller was looking at the music for the new piece during a rehearsal just prior to the recording session for Blue Train.

"So Curtis Fuller looked at this and said: 'John, John we can't create this on a moment's notice.' And that's how it was titled. Thank you, true story," Mabern says.

The 1957 recording session that produced Blue Train, which was Coltrane's second studio album, included the young trumpet player Lee Morgan. Years later, Mabern was playing piano in Morgan's band.  Mabern was playing the night Morgan was shot and killed - Feb. 19, 1972 - in Slug's Saloon in Alphabet City. Morgan was 33 at the time, and had recently kicked heroin.

Morgan's career was on the rise again. His common-law partner Helen More pulled out pistol at some point that night, and shot Morgan. He bled to death before help arrived.

"I wish  I could have been somewhere else," Mabern says in an interview with New City Notes.  "To tell you the truth, I don't really like to talk about it.  All I know is they were all laughing and talking at one point. The next - hostility, and boom. We heard a shot. That was it."

This happened in between sets Mabern says.  A lot of accounts get that wrong, including a post last week in New City Notes.

"A lot of people got it on the band stand, see that's a lie," Mabern says. "We were on intermission."

"It was a sad way for him to go man. We were getting reading to go to Europe for the first time. He was happy. Happy with his band," Mabern says.

The first set for the MacDonald-Mabern Duo on Sunday: I'll Remember April, Body and Soul, I Have Never Been in Love Before and Alone Together.

Second set: Falling in Love With Love, Bluesette, I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, Things Aren't What they Used to Be and Moment's Notice.

Third Set: Oleo, Blue Monk, (the third song was a blues, did not catch the name), Bye Bye Black Bird and Green Dolphin Street.

MacDonald and Mabern go way back.  Mabern was in town playing a gig at the old Cafe des Copains in Toronto. He also sat in on a regular Saturday CBC Radio broadcast of a jazz show in the Sheraton Centre. Jim Galloway was the tenor sax on that weekly gig, but Galloway couldn't make it that day.  MacDonald was called to sub.

"And the band was Terry Clarke (drums), Neil Swainson (bass), Harold Mabern, and I was scared," MacDonald says. "That was a long time ago. I had such a great time."

MacDonald saw Mabern perform whenever he could, sometimes in New York, sometimes in Toronto. This past summer, MacDonald called Mabern and asked the great pianist if he would come to Humber College to teach during the summer workshop that MacDonald leads.

"We spent 10 days together playing music, teaching and all that, and we did a recording at the same time," MacDonald says. "So we are back at it, and renewing old acquaintances."

That new CD was recorded for Addo Records and  is called Vista Obscura. It was released in the U.S. on Dec. 9th. It features Neil Swainson on bass, Andre White on drums and Pat LaBarbera, also on tenor sax. It is beautiful and flawless. Having two virtuoso tenor players on the same recording gives the reeds a rich, full sound to balance Mabern's vigorous playing. Last Saturday, MacDonald and Mabern played Gallery 345 in Toronto as a CD release party.

"It's a very beautiful record," Mabern says.

Mabern is more vital and productive than many jazz artists half his years. He played a Christmas show at the Kennedy Centre earlier this week. In April he is on another CD that will be released by Smoke Sessions Records. Smoke is the straight-head New York City club on Broadway near 105th Street.

"I have to compositions on the album," Mabern says. "So if you are in New York City, April 10-11-12, come by Smoke."

When the music was finished last Sunday, and the crowd gone, Mabern was putting on his coat, getting ready for the drive back to Toronto.

"Wonderful club, wonderful piano," Mabern says of The Jazz Room. "You all got quite a thing here."

check out Mabern's website, and MacDonald's site at,