Smoke Sessions Records is set to release Harold Mabern's latest album, Afro Blue, as a limited edition 180 gram double LP on Friday, March 11. This special release, which was mastered by renowned mastering engineer Kevin Gray, was pressed at Memphis Record Pressing and includes a tip-on gatefold album jacket.
Three nights at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club will support the release and celebrate the esteemed pianist's 80th birthday from Friday, March 18 through Sunday, March 20 with a rotating lineup of special guests. On Friday, Mabern will be joined by vocalist Kurt Elling, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Strasser; Saturday will feature guitarist Russell Malone, bassist John Webber and drummer Jimmy Cobb; and on Sunday by he will be joined by tenor saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Joe Farnsworth.
With Afro Blue, his second album for Smoke Sessions Records, Harold Mabern has taken a compelling new angle on his exceptionally creative musical vision. But for those who are truly familiar with this extraordinary pianist's talents, it is a project that is long overdue. While he may be best known for his powerful playing while soloing or driving so many of jazz' finest hornmen to spectacular heights of fire and thunder, Mabern has enjoyed a reputation among vocalists as one of the music's most sensitive and stimulating accompanists for more than 50 years - ever since his early days playing with the unparalleled Betty Carter.
On this album, Mabern has selected five of his favorite vocalists -- who also just happen to be some of the most popular and respected singers on today's scene -- and is featuring them as special guests in the company of his own outstanding ensemble. Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling and Alexis Cole perform individually alongside Mabern's regular ensemble of Eric Alexander on tenor sax and the bass/drums tandem of John Webber and Joe Farnsworth; plus additional guests, trombonist Steve Turre and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on four and six tracks respectively, and eminent guitarist Peter Bernstein on one track as well.
"I love to play for singers," explains the pianist. "I feel honored and flattered that these wonderful vocalists would want to be part of my little project. I feel good when singers say they love the way you play. That's a very special compliment."
Despite the wide variety of personnel, the album is fully cohesive and artfully conceived, with Mabern's soulful, blues-rooted style of piano expression as its radiant nucleus. The repertoire of 14 pieces is a fascinating assemblage of standards, jazz classics, Mabern originals and a couple of unexpected contemporary hit songs - all performed in captivating fashion and constructed upon marvelous arrangements. Of the four Mabern originals, three are dedications to jazz immortals.
Dazzling vocal artistry, impeccable musicianship, imaginative soloing, and that elusive substance of true synergy focused by the singular vision of a brilliant artist make Afro Blue a truly special experience. For Harold Mabern, whose enormous accomplishments as a leader are sometimes eclipsed by his reputation for helping so many Jazz heavyweights realize their own musical visions, Afro Blue is further testimony to his own legend.