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Jazz Album of the Week: George Cables' All Smiles Finds Pianist Is Still Young at Heart

August 19, 2019. It would’ve been more than understandable for pianist George Cables to call it quits; retirement almost certainly would’ve been the prudent, pragmatic course for the 74-year-old pianist after losing most of his left leg to a deathly serious health scare.

But prudence and pragmatism don’t govern in jazz with the weight they do in most other earthly concerns. For as intellectual as jazz can be, it’s principal relationship is not with the head but with the soul—which is why I’m All Smiles sees Cables not just called, but compelled, back to the piano, less to finish what he started than to start something anew.  

Joining Cables here are Victor Lewis (drums) and Essiet Essiet (bass), whose powers combine to round out a Cables trio for a third time. They know their role is to underscore, facilitate, support…but not to prop up.

Cables’ playing is still plenty capable of asserting who’s running the show. But it also betrays the kind of assertive sensitivity that comes from years of accompanying some of jazz’s best (from Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, to Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw and Bobby Hutcherson, among so many others). Harold Mabern is probably the only still-active contemporary of Cables who strikes this balance with similar elegance.

I’m All Smiles opens with a rendition of “Young at Heart” featuring a hip prologue where Cables’ left hand plays an ascending riff in unison with Essiet’s bass-line before giving way to the familiar theme Sinatra made famous. It’s a successful way to proclaim a comeback.

Next is a tune in three (3/4 time) taken from a Broadway show that closed after three performances. It’s the title track, a song that’s found currency among jazzers (Bill Evans, Hampton Hawes, even Barbara Streisand), even though its source material, the 1965 Broadway production of Yearling, has long resided deep within musical theatre’s historical dustbin.

Cables’ recurring, syncopated chords imbue the old show-tune with some Latin flavor and, also, bring to mind Jaki Byard’s brief prologue in Mingus’ version of “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Also in three (for the most part) are takes on Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” and Jaco Pastorius’s “Three Views of a Secret.”

The former injects a faster tempo and greater syncopation into the tune that’s the closest the Monk canon has to a cult-classic. What results is the musical version of pâté or fois gras—sophisticated, layered, kind of disgusting if you think too much about it, and comprised of those scraps of dissonant notes and chords that other musicians don’t have the stomach (or the ear) to make presentable to listeners.

And like the original, the whole here is something far different—and better— than the sum of its parts would suggest.

The latter—Pastorius’s “Three Views…”—is awash in gospel, blues, and nostalgia; if I were Lorne Michaels, Cables’ solo piano opening here would be Saturday Night Live’s end-credits theme. It’s the perfect tune to close out the week’s day of rest while enjoying a sip of the sacrament.

And it would have been the perfect closer for this album if not for the presence of Cables’ solo-piano cover of “Monk’s Mood,” the best such take I’ve heard since Chick Corea’s Expressions album.

Also not to miss: versions of Dexter Gordon’s “Thermo,” Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” and a beautifully paced and spaced “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” that affirms Cables’ hasn’t lost the most cherished aspects of his playing.

Check out more of WRTI's Jazz Albums of the Week

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.