George Cables

Looking for the Light

by Robert R. Calder

22 April 2004


George Cables, Whom God Preserve

George Cables is a supremely sensitive pianist, musically and indeed humanly, to judge from at least one recorded live performance I can think of where he nurses Art Pepper along and into a groove on the basis of what seemed at first hearing a faltering beginning. It’s true that the Maybeck Hall recitals invite reference to a standard sort of bop style, not quite managing to be a swing style, or very individual. George Cables’s solo gig there—though he hadn’t, it seems, worked out how to stomp unaccompanied, or didn’t want to that day—has a command of colour and dynamics worthy of the best of any school. Like the late Red Rodney or, I suppose, Guy Barker these days on trumpet, he has an amazing sound, worthy of the young Al Haig or Joe Albany.

I was, of course, knocked sideways, seriously distressed to read in the notes that this beautiful pianist had been suffering from a repertoire of awkward physical ailments and that finally his kidneys had packed in. Thank God—as Pat Murphy does in his notes—for the resumption of this pianist’s working life that renal dialysis is available to him. The one respect in which he does not resemble Tatum is in having the medical resource not devised in 1956—which is why Tatum departed in his middle forties, a traumatic disappearance it is nice to be too young to have been rocked by. The melodic insights and the phrasing may be a dream to emulate, but not the health disaster.

cover art

George Cables

Looking for the Light

(Muse FX)
US: 21 Oct 2003
UK: Available as import

This is a decent enough set, mostly compositions by this pianist I admire so very deeply, and maybe always expect too much of. When somebody shouted to Chico Freeman at a European jazz festival gig that he should play “On Green Dolphin Street”, he made a speech about original compositions and why for preference we play them. The audience applauded him heartily. When he played “Dolphin Street” as an encore he was cheered to the rafters. Actually, I didn’t think that much of his compositions, whether as themes or as vehicles. George Cables composes neater ones, but as a melodist actually needs very, very good ones. The best whole performances here are the ones with the most extravert titles, though maybe the best performance of all is the trio with Peter Washington on bass and Victor Lewis on drums.

I was also very taken with the adaptation of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie”, one of the tracks on which Gary Bartz plays soprano—the ones on which he plays alto are well interspersed among them. The programming is very good, and there’s plenty of variety in the sequence. Still, I am almost wondering (why not compare George Cables with Franz Liszt?), aren’t the themes of some of these compositions a bit too pianistic? I would love to hear the title theme as a piano trio item, as there’s a little bit missing in the saxophone part. I can imagine Art Pepper driving through them, in his way. I can’t imagine the more lyrical Bartz.

The pianist’s playing is certainly in forceful shape, and on “E.V.C.” he’s so prominent playing the theme statement in unison with the altoist that I almost wonder why this isn’t a trio set. Actually, most of the performances perk up marvellously once Cables is soloing, with a very full sound. In fact, away from the theme statement, both men solo extremely well. It’s almost like the experience of some old bop numbers, where what passed for a theme was just some alternative to the original song whose chords were the basis of the performance: better than a theme to tune up to but excused for being very centrally that.

The unaccompanied piano solo ending, “Helen’s Mother’s Song”, is splendid, with the very full left hand part the entire CD features. Generally, I don’t remember George Cables being so two handedly vigorous as he is throughout this set. This CD is in parts very good, I’ve expressed my reservations, and I can live with them when I hear the great spread of the piano underneath and most of the way around the soloist. A surpassingly creative accompanist. I’ll finish with another invocation of the Deity: God bless George Cables!

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