Saxophonist John Coltrane is among the most influential figures in the history of jazz. That goes without saying. Between his own records and the records that pay homage to Coltrane, his music has remained in the mainstream for ages and is certain to for many more to come. Another of those noted tributes will see the light of day Friday through Smoke Sessions Records in the form of jazz pianist Harold Mabern’s new live CD, Mabern Plays Coltrane. The hour-plus presentation is an impressive new offering from beginning to end. That is proven in part through its featured songs. They will be discussed shortly. The group’s performance thereof is of its own import to the recording’s presentation and will be examined a little later. The recording’s production rounds out its most important elements and will also be discussed later. Each item noted is important in its own way to the whole of the presentation. All things considered, they make Mabern Plays Coltrane a wonderful listening experience for fans of Coltrane, Mabern, and casual jazz fans alike.
Harold Mabern’s forthcoming collection of live John Coltrane covers is a thoroughly enjoyable new presentation. It is certain to appeal widely among jazz audiences. That is proven in part through the featured songs. Seven in all, the songs put the recording’s run time at approximately one hour, five minutes. While there are only seven songs here, they are still important because they are essentially a vivid snapshot of Coltrane’s own career, pulling from nearly every point in his career. His time with Prestige Records, Impulse! Records, Atlantic Records, and Blue Note Records are all represented here. The only era of Coltrane’s career not represented in this concert is that in which he was signed with Savoy Records. The set list reaches all the way back to Coltrane’s 1957”self-titled” record, Coltrane — which was the first on which he was a band leader – and all the way up to 1970’s Dear Lord. A handful of the songs here are taken from Coltrane’s time with Atlantic Records, while two of his Impulse! Records releases and his lone Blue Note Records release – Blue Train – are also represented. One of the most important of the Atlantic releases featured in the set list is Giant Steps.It is represented through the timeless song, Naima. For those who might not know, Giant Steps is featured in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry because of its influence on the jazz and music communities in whole. ‘My Favorite Things’ – the title track from Coltrane’s 1961 Atlantic release – is also included in the set list. It is among Coltrane’s most well-known and beloved songs, being a cover of the song from the timeless musical, The Sound of Music. On yet another note, ‘Dahomey Dance’ – featured in Coltrane’s 1961 album, Ole Coltrane – is important because the album in whole was a key moment in itself in Coltrane’s career. The album in whole was a display of Coltrane getting more interested in music from Spain. That interest showed in each of the album’s songs in its own way, too. Between this song and record and all of the others featured and represented here, it should be clear that the songs play an extremely important part of Mabern Plays Coltrane’s presentation. If in fact Mabern intentionally assembled the set list with the albums in mind as to how they would represent Coltrane’s career, then he is to be highly commended. Regardless, it is still a positive that no listener can ignore.
There is no doubt that the songs featured in Mabern Plays Coltrane are collectively an important part of the recording’s presentation. They are just a portion of what makes the recording so important, too. Mabern and company’s performances of the songs are of their own importance. Case in point is the group’s take on ‘Naima.’ The collective – Mabern on piano, Vincent Herring on alto sax and Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Joe Farnsworth on drums, Steve Davis on trombone, and John Webber on bass – takes the original song and takes its energy up a few notches. Coltrane’s original is such a cool, relaxed composition with Coltrane leading the way alongside an equally subtle piano line. Meanwhile, Mabern and company give the song more of a swing type of approach while staying true to the original. It makes for an interesting update on the song, but enjoyable nonetheless. As is pointed out in the liner notes, it keeps that Bossa Nova sensibility, but really turns the song somewhat on its ear and makes it a song that would be just as much a tribute to a loved one as the original was to Coltrane’s wife.
On another note, the group’s performance of ‘Blue Train’ is just as impressive as any other in this record. The performance stands out because of how true it stays to its source material throughout its nearly 11-minute run time. Yes, it does open with a big more swing sense than the original, but even in that case, the swing still works relatively well. It is shorter than the original by only two seconds, coming in at 10 minutes, 42 seconds. That in itself says plenty in terms of examining how closely it sticks to the original. Herring and Alexander are especially tight as they take on the song’s sax lines while Farnsworth’s nuanced time keeping on the drums is so rich even in its supporting role. Interestingly enough, there is a wonderful, high energy trumpet solo also featured in this cover that is so engaging and entertaining in its own right. The issue is that there is no direct credit for the trumpet solo anywhere in the recording’s liner notes or even on the CD’s case. Mabern’s son Michael, who penned the liner notes does make a note of “Big Daddy’s” “own fluidly funky solo.” This leads to the belief that maybe it was Mabern himself who handled the solo, but again, without any real credit given anywhere in the case and liner notes, one cannot be 100 percent certain about that. Regardless, the trumpet solo here is still a nice touch to the performance. When it is considered along with everything else noted here, the whole shows even more why the performances featured in the recording are just as important as the songs themselves.
As f everything noted is not enough proof of the importance of the recording’s performances, the group’s performance of ‘My Favorite Things’ is yet more proof of that importance. While somewhat shorter than the original – Coltrane’s original runs nearly 14 minutes while this one clocks in at just under 12 minutes – it mostly stays true to its source material, too. However, there are some notable differences, beginning right from the performance’s outset. Mabern has developed a whole new introduction to the song through a funky piano solo that takes influence from so much fusion jazz from the 1960s. Even as the song progresses from that introductory solo, it picks up the pace from the original, incorporating more of a swing vibe once again, with Mabern leading the way. Farnsworth’s steady jazz waltz time keeping adds even more depth to the song while also continuing to build on the cover’s unique update. There are even some variances between the sax solo presented here and that from Coltrane in his original take on the song. Overall, the group’s take on the song in this case is just as enjoyable as Coltrane’s take on the song as it gives the song such new energy and life. It is just one more example of how the performances featured in Mabern Plays Coltrane are so important to the recording’s body. When this and the other examined performances are considered along with the rest of the recording’s performances, the whole makes clear just how important the performances are to the overall presentation. They work with the importance of the songs themselves to further enrich the listening experience. They are not the last of the recording’s important items, either. The presentation’s production rounds out its most important elements.
The production of Mabern Plays Coltrane is important because this is, again, a live recording. Not knowing how large the venue was in which this recording was captured, it is tough to have a full picture of things. Regardless, the group’s performance was handled expertly in concert and in post. The balance in the instrumentation is exceptional in the more energetic moments and those that were more subdued. Even the audience noise was minimized, adding more to the general effect. The audience applause was barely there, but just enough to be evident between songs. That and the balance in the songs’ instrumentations makes for so much enjoyment, aesthetically speaking. When the positive impact of the production is considered along with the positive impact of the songs’ performances and the songs themselves, the whole of that insight makes the recording in whole a fully enjoyable presentation that any jazz lover will enjoy.
Harold Mabern’s forthcoming live tribute to John Coltrane, Mabern Plays Coltrane, is a wonderful way for Mabern to honor Coltrane and his legacy. That is proven in part through its featured songs. The songs in question represent a handful of key moments in Coltrane’s career and personal development as a musician. The performances of those songs is of its own interest. That is because of how they blend Coltrane’s origins with the group’s own more modern influences. They make each song unique from one another and from the original songs while paying tribute to those songs at the same time. The record’s production rounds out the most important elements. That is because of its ability to balance all of the recording’s audio. Each item examined is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered, they make Mabern Plays Coltrane, another of the year’s top new live CDs.
Mabern Plays Coltrane is scheduled for release Friday through Smoke Sessons. More information on this and other titles from Smoke Sessions is available at:
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