Harold Mabern, veritable titan of the piano whose vibrant disc, Right on Time, launched Smoke Sessions Records critically acclaimed jazz series is back with another winning album, Afro Blue. This time he is working both with his basic quartet—tenor sax man Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth—and an impressive roster of guest performers highlighted by five top jazz vocalists, Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole plus instrumentalists Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone) and Peter Bernstein (guitar). It is a disc crowded, but never as is sometimes the case in these star studded compilations, over crowded, with talent and fine music.
Although the 14-tune set begins with an instrumental, Mabern’s salute to John Coltrane “The Chief” and ends with a trio of instrumentals including some sweet guitar work from Bernstein on the Steely Dan classic “Do It Again,” the emphasis on this album is support for the vocalists. As Mabern says in his dialogue with Damon Smith that makes up the album’s liner notes: “I love to play for singers because that’s really how you learn to play the piano jazz-wise. . . .It’s a tremendous challenge to play for a vocalist. You’ve got to orchestrate when you play for them.” His work with the vocalists on Afro Blue makes clear that his reputation as one of the finest of accompanists is not exaggerated. He supports the singer with assurance and never tries to steal the spotlight.
Of all the performances, I found Kurt Elling’s dramatically passionate reading of “You Needed Me” most compelling. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the others, but there was an intensity here that made the track something special. He also does yeoman work on “Portrait of Jennie” and his “Billie’s Bounce” is characteristic Elling vocalese at its swinging best. Jane Monheit, after a sensitive reading of “My One and Only Love,” takes a sprightly turn on “I’ll Take Romance,” while Mabern playfully captures the meaning of the cliché, “tickle the ivories.” Norah Jones, dueting with Mabern’s solo piano, hits all the emotional beats in Gordon Parks’ “Don’t Misunderstand” and her “Fools Rush In” with Pelt and Turre added to the quartet is enticing. Gregory Porter opens the vocals with the album’s title tune, and a laid back reading of Mabern’s “The Man from Hyde Park.” Alexis Cole closes out the vocals with a robust version of Mabern’s “Such is Life.”