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Holy Crap! Who is this man with the giant hands that play the piano so beautifully, and why haven't I been listening to him?

Just last week my ignorance of jazz pianist Harold Mabern was lifted when I saw him playing in tenor saxist George Coleman's quartet at Smoke on Manhattan's Upper West Side. To my ears, Mabern stole the show with solos that used all the musical colors of the rainbow and all the rhythmic movements of a belly dancer.

Harold Mabern was born on 20 March 1936 in Memphis, Tennessee. Through high school he was a drummer, just fooling around on piano at a friend's house. That started to change, first when he met piano teacher Charles Thomas and then, most influentially, after he encountered Phineas Newborn, Jr. who would become Mabern's greatest influence.

Mabern moved from Memphis to Chicago in 1954 where he soon found work backing up tenor sax players Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordon. He made his recording debut with drummer Walter Perkins' group called MJT + 3 in 1959. Soon after, he moved to New York City where his first jobs were with trumpter Harry "Sweets" Edison and with Lionel Hampton's big band. Since then he's played with such notables as Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Clark Terry. In the early 1970's he worked with Lee Morgan up until the trumpeter's premature death.

Mabern explains a little about his background and its influence on his music:

"There were some fine jazz musicians in Memphis, like Phineas Newborn, Jr., who I've always said was a musical genius. But if you wanted to make a living as a jazz musician in Memphis, you were also forced to play rhythm and blues music. At the time, we all thought it was taking away from our time with jazz. But now I realize what a joy it was. It takes a special kind of feel that all great improvisers like Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown understood. In fact, I think of myself as a blues pianist who understands jazz."

In 1981 Mabern took a position teaching at New Jersey's William Paterson University, where he still holds and adjunct position. Eric Alexander, an up-and-coming tenor sax star, was a student in Mabern's jazz combo class; now the two collaborate frequently.

I'll be on the lookout for Mabern recordings and will add more as I learn more.

Terry Perkins' article at www.allaboutjazz.com was invaluable in learning more about Harold Mabern.

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