George Cables is a pianist who has worked with some of the biggest names in jazz – from Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie to Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach and Art Pepper. Indeed, Cables’ CV is a jaw-droppingly impressive one and in addition to his myriad sessions as a sideman he’s also found time to release thirty-one albums under his own name, beginning with ‘Why Not’ back in 1975. Like that debut record, the New York pianist’s latest opus is a trio session and features Jackie McLean protégé Dezron Douglas on bass and the Cyrus Chestnut-mentored Victor Lewis on drums. As its title suggests, ‘Icons & Influences’ pays homage to the musicians that have helped shaped Cables’ own musical sensibility, including fellow pianists Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck plus vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, composer Duke Ellington, and saxophonists Joe Henderson and Benny Golson.
The album begins, though, with three Cables originals, two of which are elegies for recently departed musician friends of the pianist. ‘Cedar Walton’ is a vibrant, blithely-swinging musical tribute to the late ex-Jazz Messenger and pianist of the same name while another recently departed pianist, Mulgrew Miller, is honoured by a more muted and reflective piece that takes his moniker. The third Cables-penned number is the jaunty finger-clicker, ‘Happiness,’ which is propelled by Dezron Douglas’s walking bass line, a lightly-swinging groove from Lewis and features some fine, nimble-fingered soloing from Cables.
Following this, Cables demonstrates his skill as an interpreter and arranger of other people’s material. Dave Brubeck’s ‘The Duke’ – famously given a luminous orchestral treatment by Miles Davis with Gil Evans on 1957’s ‘Miles Ahead’ LP – is beautifully rendered and benefits from Cables’ delicate right-hand filigrees. Brubeck’s tune was a tribute to Duke Ellington, of course, whose sublime sacred song, ‘Come Sunday,’ is wonderfully reworked by Cables and his trio, whose ensemble work displays an almost telepathic interplay. Listen out for a dexterous solo, too, from bassist, Douglas.
Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Little B’s Poem’ is another highlight and finds Cables doubling the bass line to good effect on a Latin-inflected groove. More unison piano/bass parts appear on a sweetly lyrical version of ‘Nature Boy,’ a track famously cut by Nat ‘King’ Cole though apparently, Cables was deeply inspired by Coltrane’s take on the evergreen Eden Ahbez-written tune. The pianist puts his own spin on Bill Evans’ lushly romantic ‘Very Early,’ while the danceable ‘Mo’ Pan’ has a delightful Caribbean aura and calypso-style groove that recalls the vibe of a catchy little record that made a deep impression on a teenaged Cables – Wynton Kelly’s ‘Little Tracy.’
Closing with a brief but profoundly evocative solo piano rendition of Benny Golson’s beautifully bittersweet ‘Blue Heart,’ George Cables illustrates why he’s revered by the jazz community – he’s technically accomplished but also knows how to play with a beguiling simplicity. Moreover, his judicious use of space as well as subtle harmonic colouration is such that he is able to touch and affect his listeners in a profound way.
That’s the sign of a true master.