April 2022 Jazz Record Reviews

Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Coltrane
Mabern, piano; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Steve Davis, trombone; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums
Smoke Sessions SSR-2107 (CD, download). 2021. Paul Stache, Damon Smith, prods.; Paul Stache, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Harold Mabern made this record when he was 81, 20 months before he died, with a sextet full of badasses 30 years younger. You might think his five sidemen had to go easy on their aging leader. If you thought that, you would be wrong. The guy here with the most striking ideas, the most juice, is Harold Mabern.

They called him Iron Man. For 60 years, he was one of the elite post-bop pianists. It would be silly to list all the important people he played with. The list is too long. (Hint: It starts with Miles, Freddie, and Wes, and goes from there.) His style was brute strength and the blues. He attacked the piano percussively, in thick block chords. But his harmonic language was rich. His own description of himself is accurate: "a blues player with chops."

During the pandemic, Smoke, at 106th and Broadway, had to close its doors. The Smoke Sessions label continued to make recordings, but in an empty club. This album comes from January 2018, well before the lockdown. Smoke is alive with the energy of the crowd. The occasion is the club's annual Coltrane festival. The band is on fire, uplifted by the moment, delivering the message of powerful Coltrane anthems like "Blue Train" and "Impressions."

It takes a special pianist to make Coltrane's sacred music ("Dear Lord") both commanding and prayerful. "Naima," perhaps Coltrane's gentlest tune, becomes hard and fierce. It just wasn't a night for ballads. You might think Mabern shouldn't do "My Favorite Things." Coltrane owned it. You would be wrong again. Mabern creates the piano version of Coltrane's ecstatic saxophone onslaught on Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Plays Coltrane is the right gift for an Iron Man to leave behind.—Thomas Conrad


Paul Jost Quartet: While We Were Gone
Jost, vocals, harmonica; Jim Ridl, piano; Dean Johnson, bass; Tim Horner, drums; two others
PJ Music PJM-0121-2 (2 CDs). 2021. Paul Jost, prod.; David Power, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

Paul Jost is that rare phenomenon among jazz vocalists: a true stylist. He has spent his life in music, mostly as a drummer. He came late to singing. He is almost 60 but did not release his first vocal recording until 2015. This new double album is his third.

His phrasing is asymmetrical. He sometimes talks his lyrics, as if he were thinking out loud. Just when you decide that quiet introspection is his thing, he breaks loose and scats with wild abandon. He sings standards but also covers pieces by Randy Newman, Luiz Bonfá, and Donovan. It is very risky for Jost to take on Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," from the film Midnight Cowboy. Harry Nilsson sang it, unforgettably, on the soundtrack. Jost boldy transforms it into a disturbing, chilling interior monologue. Jost needs many voices and many kinds of tunes because he is first a storyteller. He has said, "I want the lyrics to a song to trigger some kind of life experience that I can relate to."

When Jost (in his credible, slightly frayed, world-wise voice) sings songs you've heard a thousand times, like "The Nearness of You" and "My Foolish Heart," they take on meanings you've never understood in them before, because of their placement in his life's narrative. Songs for him are a means to the realization of a personal testament. With vast patience, he pieces his way through "We'll Be Together Again," searching for faith. He is probably the best interpreter of Randy Newman since Randy Newman. "Feels Like Home" is a heart laid bare.

There are some issues with the sound. Jost's voice is sometimes too recessed in the mix. But they are minor problems in a major recording. While We Were Gone rewards deep listening. It is one of the most creative jazz vocal albums you will hear this year.—Thomas Conrad


Various Artists: Buena Vista Social Club 25th Anniversary Edition
World Circuit/BMG WCV050BOX (2CDs + 2LPs). 1997/2021. Ry Cooder, prod.; Jerry Boys, Bernie Grundman, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

In 1996, American guitarist Ry Cooder and British label owner Nick Gold traveled to Havana to make what they thought would be a Cuba-meets-Africa record with musicians from Mali. When the Malians didn't show up, Cooder and Gold, with help from local bandleader Juan de Marcos González, mustered a group of mostly older Cuban singers and players, coaxing some out of retirement, and recorded an album of mainly traditional compositions at the historic EGREM studios.

Buena Vista Social Club was a worldwide sensation, selling in the millions, winning a Grammy, spawning spinoff albums by individual artists, and inspiring a documentary film of the group's 1998 performance at Carnegie Hall. Now Gold's World Circuit label, currently owned by BMG, has released the 25th Anniversary Edition, available as a two-CD, two-LP, or two-CD-plus-two-LP set, including remastered versions of the original 14 tracks as well as alternate and previously unreleased tracks numbering from five on the "gatefold" LP set to 19 on the LP-plus-CD "Bookpack" box. The music is accompanied by 40- or 64-page booklets (again depending on the format), with new liner notes, photos, artist bios, song notes, and lyrics.

Cooder's original production, engineered by Jerry Boys, was and is a peculiar sort of masterpiece, marred only by the intrusion of Cooder's own slide-guitar overdubs. Each track has its own discrete mix, with the percussion in the background on one number, for example, and up front on the next. Bernie Grundman's remastered versions are a slight improvement, but the previously unreleased tracks sound better still, significantly crisper and cleaner. The vocals and string instruments are spotlighted, the guitars rendered with crystalline clarity.

Whatever its idiosyncrasies, the recording preserves the magic of a moment when these aging masters, most of whom had never played together before, united to express a shared heritage, evoking Cuba's pre-revolutionary musical golden era. According to the liner notes, Cooder recorded the vintage bolero "Dos Gardenias" when 76-year-old pianist Rubén González and 69-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer, both previously retired, spontaneously began to perform. Yet, there are two versions of the song, both beginning with a trumpet solo by Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, which sounds muted on the original take but not on the alternate. Both versions are magnificent, aside from Cooder's steel guitar on the original.

In addition to superior audio, the alternate takes benefit from the omission of Cooder's guitar, except for "Orgullecida," where the original features his agreeably Country-and-Western–flavored solo. On the alternate of "Candela," the vocal chorus is weaker than on the original, but Eliades Ochoa's guitar is glossier and Carlos González's bongos pop harder. Some of the 11 tracks never issued before in any form—five composed by and featuring Compay Segundo and another five featuring Rubén González—are as compelling as any of the previously released 14. Segundo is in fine form on the driving "Vicenta" and "A Tus Pies," singing in close harmony with Eliades Ochoa on the former and Julio Alberto Fernández on the latter, picking superb guitar on both. González quotes the Russian standard "Dark Eyes" on "Mandinga," plays an unaccompanied version of Ernesto Lecuona's Cuban classic "Siboney," and romps through the tricky Venezuelan waltz "El Diablo Suelto."

The remastered tracks from the original release sound at least as glorious as before, ringing with unaffected authenticity and soulful authority. Ferrer's soaring vocal exchange with Ochoa and Manuel "Puntillita" Licea on the high-powered song "El Cuarto del Tula" is unforgettable, as is Omara Portuondo's duet with Compay Segundo on the wistful habanera "Veinte Años" (first recorded by its composer, Mar°a Teresa Vera, in a duet with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, who as Compay Primo partnered with Francisco Repilado, aka Compay Segundo, in the duo Los Compadres).

The vintage studio atmosphere surely contributed to the musical aura, and it's doubtful that a more pristine, not to say sterile, environment would have captured the spirit as faithfully. As for the LPs, the bass-heavy warmth of vinyl comes at the expense of lucidity, and the sound is muddy compared to the CDs.—Larry Birnbaum