Harold Mabern has always enjoyed the challenge of working with singers. He recorded with Betty Carter, Bill Henderson and Johnny Hartman, and on his new album, "Afro Blue" (Smoke Sessions Records), he adds collaborations with five current vocalists.
Gregory Porter effectively mixes his mercurial scat chops with the well-known vocalese lyrics on the title track, and adroitly handles the tricky words of Mabern's "Man from Hyde Park" (a tribute to Herbie Hancock). Norah Jones' voice effortlessly glides over the "Poinciana"-inspired groove on "Fools Rush In", and here, as well as on the stunning duet with Mabern on "Don't Misunderstand", she shows great rhythmic freedom and a deep understanding of the lyrics (Isn't it about time Ms. Jones recorded a jazz album under her own name?). While Porter's scat and Jones' rhythmic flexibility might come as a surprise to casual fans, there aren't many unexpected moments in Jane Monheit's two songs — but she is in fine form on both "I'll Take Romance" and "My One and Only Love".
Kurt Elling jams with the band (Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth) on a wordless and deeply swinging "Billie's Bounce". His version of "Portrait of Jennie" is masterful, showing exquisite control and a delicate reading of the lyric. Elling was only scheduled to sing two tunes on the album, but as he was getting ready to leave the studio, Mabern and the band started to rehearse "You Needed Me". Elling started singing the lyric casually, and Mabern asked him to record it for the album. While it's not one of his specialties, Elling adapts his style to the song and acquits himself quite well.
The final vocal track is by Alexis Cole, perhaps best known for her album of Pepper Adams songs. She sings Mabern's original "Such is Life" with great conviction, and I wish she would have had an additional feature to further display her talent. The remaining instrumental tracks are well-played, but their short running times restrict the musician's solo space. The album might have been better if it focused strictly on the vocalists, shuffled the appearances of the singers, and perhaps encouraged a duet or two. As it is, "Afro-Blue" is a highly enjoyable sampler of five superb vocalists and an exceptional instrumental group led by a legendary accompanist.