Jazz Album Review: Two Trios — Featuring Harold Mabern and Yoko Miwa

By Steve Feeney

One disc features the late pianist Harold Mabern; pianist Yoko Miwa’s new album supplies much appreciated exuberance.

Leon Lee Dorsey: Thank You, Mr. Mabern! (Jazz Avenue) and Yoko Miwa Trio: Songs of Joy (Ubuntu Music)

Perhaps because Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, and Johnathan Blake released the excellent trio disc Without Deception last year, I have found myself in recent months drawn to albums that feature jazz threesomes in the piano/bass/drums format. There always seems to be wealth of them around and, when they succeed, their intricate three-sided musical geometry can be thrilling as well as a bit comforting, depending on the musicians’ bent, of course.

I was late to catch up to the music of Harold Mabern (1936-2019). A trio album from 1991 called Straight Street (DIW/Columbia with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette) turned me on to the Memphis pianist’s distinctive, blues-informed spirit, how it energized both original and standards in a distinctively commanding yet likeable way. It was one of those moments when you wonder how you could have missed someone this good for so long. My bad. Of course, I had heard him before — with Lee Morgan, George Coleman, and others — without fully appreciating his talent.

A recent spate of posthumous releases confirms that Mabern never lost touch with his soulfully sophisticated manner of inhabiting a song. Producer /bassist Leon Lee Dorsey’s Thank You, Mr. Mabern! (recorded just over two months before the keyboardist’s passing) makes a claim to being Mabern’s final studio recording. The pianist and company (Dorsey on bass, Mike Clark on drums) dwell so buoyantly within the disc’s sterling covers (as well as a Mabern original) that the release’s bonafide are firmly established — this is a worthy sendoff for a man who helped keep jazz tradition(s) alive well into the 21st century.

In a 2011 interview available on YouTube, Mabern recalls touring briefly with Miles Davis in the early ’60s. Still unsure of his musical range at the time, the pianist was thrilled when the notoriously sharp-tongued bandleader whispered in his ear, “You sure can swing.”

One can hear this facility on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a tune often associated with Davis in a performance that whips up a jaunty whirlwind at a medium tempo. The accompanists are given a chance to shine; Dorsey tells a solo story and Clark is content to tap just behind him. Mabern re-enters, and what follows is a blissful excursion through soulful variations that end far too soon.

The bright, uptempo swing given John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” powered by Clark, evokes the controlled urgency that runs through the composer’s late ’50s work.

’60s-style funk lives on with a lively version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Mabern’s own “Rakin’ and Scrapin.” Both compositions are infused with a limber catchiness — the result of an infectious groove powered by a personality eager to poke at formal boundaries. Having worked with Hancock during his Headhunters period, Clark knows the drill well.

Partly because it’s a great tune, not heard enough, Frank Foster’s waltz “Simone” is the highlight on the disc for me. The trio’s take underlines the point that Mabern could move in modal realms, with a force that was always closely accompanied by grace.

Japan-born, Boston-connected pianist Yoko Miwa is still coming on strong with her latest trio disc, Songs of Joy. Her long-running preference for playing in “many different styles” is again on display, a versatility that is distinguished by how she wields it with such ebullience, no matter what piece she is performing.

Again partnered with Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums, the spirited pianist this time around explores compositions by Richie Havens , Billy Preston, Duke Jordan, (the inevitable but always welcome) Thelonious Monk, plus a handful of her own tunes.

Perhaps carrying on from the title of her previous album, Keep Talkin’, the Miwa original “Small Talk” is a swinging romp that (ironically) rides on stouthearted chords that belie the title. Her “Inside a Dream” is a nearly pure homage to the inimitable Bill Evans.

“The Rainbirds” favors the kind of Latin-esque excursions Kenny Barron would most likely recognize. Slater and Goulding’s accompaniment throughout the album is brisk and flawless. The leader affords them generous breaks to shine fresh light on her composition.

Miwa’s arrangement of Richie Haven’s “Freedom” resonates with the artistry of another master, McCoy Tyner. Her take on Monk’s “Think of One” lets us in on a thoughtful musical conversation, an intricate investigation into how this genius assembled his music.

Tony Germain’s “Tony’s Blues” and Duke Jordan’s “No Problem” dig a little deeper into the blues-to-bop groove that Harold Mabern knew so well. But Miwa’s polystylistic vision is too restless to remain in one place for too long — her jazz firmament is constantly shifting, in perpetual joyous transformation.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

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