In art, there’s always a bit of disconnect between critics and aficionados, and that’s true for jazz as well. Critics are always looking for innovations and like to extol musicians who break new ground; listeners often don’t care too much about that, preferring to just enjoy and let the music speak for itself. And then there’s that rare musician whom audiences love and critics pay grudging respect to. Piano veteran Harold Mabern will certainly be counted among them.

For a man who has been playing for more than five decades with jazz greats such as Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean and Rahsaan Roland Kirk as an accompanist, it is little wonder that his albums as leader would be as accomplished. As he approaches his 80th year, Mabern shows no signs of slowing down and has released the excellent Afro Blue (2015).

Those who are familiar with Mabern’s work tend to think of him as a sideman to master horn men, forgetting that he was equally adept at accompanying singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Johnny Hartman. Afro Blue, a selection of live performances at the Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in New York, sees him with a star cast of vocalists that include Norah Jones, Gregory Potter, Kurt Elling, Alexis Cole and Jane Monheit. Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander and Steve Turre form a killer horn section in the album along with his regular trio mates, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth.

Bookended by two original instrumental compositions, The Chief and Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu, Afro Blue is a coherent musical showpiece that shows Mabern at his best. His call and response with Potter in the title track is particularly dazzling. Don’t Misunderstand, featuring Jones, is another gem and so is the scat-fired Billie’s Bounce by Elling. It’s not often that listeners get to hear a maestro jiving so well with musicians removed from him by a generation.

Mabern in his seventh decade has really been on a roll, which is quite evident from his albums in the past few years. The one that particularly stands out is Live At Smalls (2013), songs in a trio setting with Webber and Farnsworth at the Smalls Jazz Club in New York that showcases the powerful playing that has made Mabern a fan favorite. His treatment of I’m Walking, a classic composition by Fats Domino, is effortlessly agile, retaining the New Orleans swing with Mabern’s distinctive style. The other numbers that stand out are Afro Blue and Dreaming. Live At Smalls was followed by the wonderful Right On Time (2014), recorded live at Smoke, which rewards repeated listening.

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Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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