DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Memphis-born jazz pianist Harold Mabern got hired by a named band on the day he arrived in New York in 1959. He's been busy ever since, leading his own groups, backing singers and doing hundreds of record dates with Lee Morgan, George Coleman and many more. For his new album, Mabern taps some old colleagues, starting with drummer Jimmy Cobb, who he'd first played with over 50 years ago. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says neither musician sounds like he's slowing down.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "INNER GLIMPSE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Harold Mabern plays piano like he's in command and the keys are wired to his brain. His confident style owes something to McCoy Tyner's big, splashy approach and also to Ahmad Jamal's way of spelling out a melody in bright, punchy chords. But those were just starting points. Harold Mabern has lived through half of jazz history as a working pianist and has that history under his fingers. He keeps pushing like a drummer. Listening to him can be like watching a showy magician, always pulling something out of yet another pocket.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU")
WHITEHEAD: Pianist Harold Mabern on "I Get A Kick Out Of You" from his album "To Love And Be Loved," a real Mabern showcase. As imposing as he is as a soloist, he can be self-effacing too within the ensemble or backing someone else's solo. Mabern stays busy without calling attention to himself, lets you think drummer Jimmy Cobb does all the cooking.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "THE GIGOLO")
WHITEHEAD: That's Lee Morgan's tune "The Gigolo" with Freddie Hendrix on trumpet. The tenor saxophonist is Mabern favorite and one-time protege Eric Alexander, who has the same timing, ear for harmony and deep swing feel. Harold Mabern sets the saxophonist up and then lays carpet under his solo on the 1934 ballad "If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You."
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "IF THERE IS SOMEONE LOVELIER THAN YOU")
WHITEHEAD: Harold Mabern and Eric Alexander know how to hold a mood or change it up when the spotlight shifts from one to the other. The pianist and saxophonist also share a blues sense that was honed during years each spent in Chicago. On bass is another Mabern regular, Nat Reeves.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "HITTIN' THE JUG")
WHITEHEAD: On Harold Mabern's new album, the players sift gold even from panned-out tunes like "My Funny Valentine" and "So What." But they also hit the blues hard, and they are never going to go wrong there. Eric Alexander wrote a new one to honor his mentor called "The Iron Man." It's no big mystery how Harold Mabern came by that nickname.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD MABERN'S "THE IRON MAN")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for a Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "To Love And Be Loved," The new album by pianist Harold Mabern. On Monday's show - writing speeches and jokes for President Obama. David Litt was only 24 when he started.
DAVID LITT: It felt totally surreal and completely terrifying.
DAVIES: He went on to become senior presidential speechwriter and lead writer for four standup appearances at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. His new memoir is "Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.