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Beale Street Talks

Like Newborn, Mabern and his contemporaries apprenticed in Beale Street r&b bands, an experience they resented at the time but are now delighted to flaunt. Only five years younger than his mentor, Mabern, who was born in 1936, made a typically Memphian detour from blues when, after moving to Chicago in 1954, he studied harmony with Ahmad Jamal. Drawn no less to the long eccentric winding phrases of Chris Anderson and the driving brilliance of Bud Powell, he developed a comprehensive modern style, though, as he told Jazzis editor Larry Blumenfeld, ''I think of myself today as a blues pianist who understands jazz.'' His new album, Mabern's Grooveyard, coproduced by Williams and Kazunori Sugiyama for DIW (now distributed in America by Koch), is perhaps his most satisfying to date.

It begins with a kind of informal trilogy of jazz standards that progress in tempo and feeling from medium groove to hurtling groove. Carl Perkins's ''Grooveyard'' is ideal for cerebration in a lyrical mode, generously sprinkled with blues glisses, a Mabern hallmark, and sustained with dramatic tension over tremolos and dissonant block chords. Tadd Dameron's ''Ladybird'' begins deceptively as a faux blues with an eight-plus-four intro that seamlessly flows into the 32-bar theme, rendered as bop with a gospel edge. Two years ago, Mabern recorded Duke Pearson's ''Jeannine'' as a piano duet with Geoff Keezer on For Phineas (Sackville); here he attacks it with pulsing, light-fingered percussiveness, from the treble repeat in the head through a riff-laden and unusually fitting fade-out. Of the pop tunes, ''East of the Sun'' gains nothing from a bossa nova arrangement or a glissing-into-space fade, but ''A Hundred Years From Today'' is a model of unpretentious, openhearted melody playing, impeccably paced and buttressed with forthright chords. Victor Young's 1933 melody might have been a model vehicle for Fats Waller, who never recorded it--at least, Mabern's rendition inspires such speculation until the harmonic broadside of his coda brings you back to the '90s.

The album's success owes much to drummer Tony Reedus, whose plush cymbal work has a fitting homeyness, unlike the spare, angular attack of Jack DeJohnette on Mabern's previous DIWs, including Straight Street, which emphasizes the more progressive half of the Memphis equation. Christian McBride's contribution is on a par with Mabern's. Few bassists can make the prospect of a bass solo on almost every selection palatable, but McBride never bores. His arco solo on ''It's a Lonesome Old Town'' and his plucked accompaniment on the same album's ''Moment's Notice'' showed an affinity between him and Mabern that is fully realized here, especially in his bowed choruses on Gigi Gryce's ebullient 16-bar blues ''Minority'' (a retrospective of Gryce's tunes is long overdue) and an uncustomary version of Avery Parrish's ''After Hours.'' Parrish's seductive keyboard blues was memorably revived last year by David Maxwell and Pinetop Perkins, who added lyrics, and as Mabern strums his second chorus with tremolos, you anticipate another good colloquial workout. But just then he initiates a stop-time figure and turns it over to McBride for three radiant choruses. Mabern's return--backed by McBride's pizzicato shuffle rhythm--is anticlimactic, but thoroughly characteristic of the Memphian penchant for turning blues on its head.

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