This article was first published at Blogcritics
Smoke Sessions Records a new jazz recording label launched by the owners of the New York City jazz club Smoke is nothing short of a godsend for jazz lovers—make that music lovers. While originally intended to focus on live performances of musicians associated with the club, not a bad idea given that Smoke features the cream of an elite crop, the success of the first releases may well argue for tweaking that original intention.
The first of the albums, pianist Harold Mabern’s Right on Time, is as good an advertisement for the series as anyone could want. Recorded in March of 2013 during the weekend of his 77th birthday, Mabern working with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth plows through an energetic set mixing classic jazz tunes, an original or two, and even a couple of unusual choices. It is a lively foot tapping set filled with performance gems. Mabern is at the top of his game. His solos are rich and filled with wit. Webber and Farnsworth are the perfect complement.
Whether they are transforming, “Dance With Me,” the disco piece that opens the album, the Laverne and Shirley theme, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” or revisiting the Thad Jones classic “To You,” the trio delivers the goods in a big way. Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” is treated as a powerful bluesy ballad with some strong solo work from Webber. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” made famous in the jazz context by John Coltrane, gets some cascading piano work from Mabern and its climactic musical allusion to “Lullaby of Birdland” is a clever touch.
The two Mabern’s originals are “Edward Lee” dedicated to trumpeter Lee Morgan and “Blues for Frank ‘n’ Paul ‘n’ All.” There are fine versions of “Charade” and “The Nearness of You” before “Cherokee,” a bop romp introduced and driven by drummer Farnsworth, closes the album on a high.
Other albums among the first of the Smoke Session series feature saxophonist Vincent Herring leading a quartet in The Uptown Shuffle, the Javon Jackson Band’s Expression, and David Hazeltine’s For All We Know. Albums are scheduled for release one a month beginning with the Mabern in January 2014 and running through September.