Since his emergence onto the New York scene in 1959, pianist Harold Mabern has become one of the few true living jazz stylists on the piano. Having played with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, and Lee Morgan, Mabern has the experience and the depth of knowledge sufficient to be called a master. There is no one on the scene who sounds like him, and his sense of lyricism, rhythm, time, and the entire range of dynamics in his playing attract other players as well as listeners. The Leading Man, issued in 1993, is considered a classic, both for its selection of material and the performances of the various ensembles Mabern assembled for the date. But there is something else, too - nowhere in Mabern's recorded catalog is there a performance like this from him. His playing, while always inspired, is revelatory in its sense of full orchestration and the shifting timbres of his solos against the bassline (played by Ron Carter). Also on this set are drummer Jack DeJohnette, alto man Bill Easley, fellow Memphian and trumpeter Bill Mobley, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and vocalist Pamela Baskin-Watson. With the exception of DeJohnette and Carter, all the other players rotate on this stunning collection. The standout track is Montgomery's "Full House," which features Eubanks and Mabern trading eights, then fours, then slipping into solo breaks at the same time, in close harmony and gliding through the arpeggios like a skater on ice. The medley of "She" and "Mr. Lucky," by George Shearing and Henry Mancini, respectively, is a chance for Mabern to show both his lyrical and dynamic abilities by tracing the melodies of each tune through the other, then harmonically combining them in rhythmic patterns of graceful elegance. Easley gets the chance to reveal the depth of his modal style on Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No." Mabern slips phrases from McCoy Tyner's comp book into the body of the tune, but the harmonic architecture and the interval changes - in and out of mode - are all his. Easley sets the bar high and delivers by blowing through those harmonies, not inside them. There is a bit of everything here, from the aforementioned exercises to the greasy funk of Jimmy Smith's "T-Bone Steak" to Mabern's compositions such as "B&B," where Mobley plays with the emotion of Chet Baker and the melodic chops of Fats Navarro. The last tune, "Mercury Retro," is one of Mabern's too. A piano solo, it begins as an exercise in dissonant counterpoint, transforming itself inside of five minutes into a jazz ballad that becomes a boogie-woogie blues to a classical rondo and even a prelude and fugue; it's just amazing. You never get the feeling the guy is showing off, either. The Leading Man proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mabern is just that.
All Music Guide