Music makes Harold Mabern feel youthful

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For proof of music’s healing power, look no further than 78-year-old Harold Mabern, who’s backed Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and Wes Montgomery, and who’s just done the same for local saxophonist and entrepreneur Cory Weeds. Mabern almost steals the show on the recently released As of Now—and probably would have if it weren’t also Weeds’s strongest recording to date. Backed by the pianist’s regular New York City rhythm section of bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth, the two soloists spar on a selection of tunes ranging from Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” to the childhood favourite “Pop Goes the Weasel”, with neither of them acting anywhere near their age.

While the youthful Weeds has begun to gather some of the gravitas of his tenor-saxophone idols, Mabern has apparently been drinking from the fountain of youth, flinging a constant stream of ideas at his bandmates and playing with the vitality of someone half his age. The pianist credits his natural moderation for the latter, noting that unlike many of his peers he kept well away from hard drugs, cigarettes, and heavy drinking. Mabern’s even had to cut back on his one real vice, ice cream, but says that music more than compensates.

“I never get tired when I’m playing,” he notes, on the line from his New Jersey home. “I get tired when I’m off the bandstand, taking a break. I could play all night, because the music is so therapeutic.”

Weeds was in need of some therapy himself toward the end of 2013, when As of Now was made. The week that Mabern and his associates were on the West Coast coincided with a catastrophic flood at the saxophonist’s Jazz Cellar nightclub—an event he now says was the last straw in his ongoing struggle to keep the Point Grey venue afloat.

“We were going through hell,” Weeds admits. “But when we got away from the Cellar, I felt an amazing amount of freedom. The stress was still there, but as long as I wasn’t in the middle of it, I was fine. I mean, I was hanging out with Harold Mabern on the road. Nothing else trumps that!”

The positive vibes carried over into producer Joby Baker’s Victoria studio, where As of Now came together with lightning speed.

Harold Mabern.

“The thing I was shocked about most was that everything sounded good, right from the outset,” Weeds recalls. “We played the first tune, and Harold took his hands off the keys and went, ‘MC Hammer!’ It took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about—and what he was saying was ‘Can’t touch this!’ Like, ‘It’s not going to get any better.’ And he was totally right.

“When we left the studio, I was really nervous,” he continues. “I was like, ‘Am I going to get home and realize that this whole thing sucked, and we rushed it?’ But I listened to the stuff, and now I’m like, ‘I don’t think it can get any better!’ Not for me, anyway.”

Weeds and Mabern are set to reconvene for a pair of TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival shows, this time with bassist Adam Thomas and drummer Julian MacDonough. Whether they’ll be able to build on perfection remains to be seen, but even in unimproved form, the music will be wonderful.

Cory Weeds and Harold Mabern play the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival at Pyatt Hall on Thursday and Friday (June 26 and 27).

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