New York All-Stars feat. Eric Alexander and Harold Mabern ‘Burnin’ in London’ CD/DIG (Ubuntu Music) 4/5

Currently on tour in the UK with concerts up to and including the 20 September, the New York All-Stars are a superior formation of New York’s finest musicians and include the great Harold Mabern on piano, veteran of recordings with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk, Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins to name but a few. His presence alone is worth the admission fee and the multi-talented tenorist, Eric Alexander, is a major attraction and a leader in his own right and completing the quartet are US born, but Paris resident, bassist Daryl Hall and Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter. The intimacy of the live sound, recorded at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club and produced by Ubuntu director, Martin Hummel, lends itself to the small group format and, with no need to verbally introduce the band, the music speaks for itself from the very outset. Among the classic selection of standards from the American Songbook, it is in fact a Mabern original that is the standout number, ‘Nightlife in Tokyo’. A lovely mid-tempo groove permeates the piece, with Alexander all sweet and mellow, while the pianist engages in a delightful solo in the middle, finding time and space to quote more contemporary songs from the pop and soul idioms such as, ‘Music Makes the World Go Round’, and Steely Dan’s ‘Do It Again’. A fine composition from a vastly underrated writer. Elsewhere, unusual time signatures breath new life into the evergreens, with ‘Summertime’, a praiseworthy deviation from the norm, taken at a significantly faster pace (akin to that of the epic Tito Rodriguez epic rendition, with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in hot pursuit), with McCoy Tyneresque inflections from Mabern, and a Latin vamp thrown in for good measure.

Fans of modal jazz will marvel at the gloriously swinging version of, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’, with both the fine drumming of Bernd Reiter and the wailing tenor of Alexander two compelling reasons why this interpretation is a winner. On the one ballad on offer, ‘It’s Magic’, Alexander reveals his profound debt of gratitude to the tenor titans with Ben Webster immediately coming to mind here and just the faintest hint of the gentle side of John Coltrane, while the deft percussion work from Reiter once again impresses as does the Mabern solo. A fast-paced waltz, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, and the medium tempo take on ‘Almost Like Being In Love’, both round off an excellent live set. It is important and indeed sad news to note that during the current tour, Harold Mabern has been unable to travel owing to illness and has been replaced for the whole tour by Mike Ledonne. The remaining concerts are at the Pizza Express, London, tonight and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, on September 21, before the band take to the continent and concerts ending in France on 3 and 4 November at Duc des Lombards in Paris.

Tim Stenhouse