Music Review: George Cables, at the Iridium

March 24th, 2013

The pianist George Cables ended his first set at the Iridium on Wednesday night with “My Muse,” a compact tune with the kind of crisp, sunny melody that might have made it a staple in the age of jukeboxes and roller rinks. Over a percolating rock beat, he played the theme jauntily, saving all his flash for a cascading solo that started fast and never flagged. If the song carried a burden of sentiment, he wasn’t about to let it show.

Mr. Cables was playing an engagement devoted entirely to his own compositions, something he apparently had never done before, despite a wealth of options. This was courtesy of Todd Barkan’s Keystone Korner Nights, a newish series named after the storied San Francisco club. Mr. Cables appeared often as a sideman at Keystone Korner, and it was there that he met Helen Wray, his partner of almost 30 years. (He was on tour with the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; she was working as a waitress.)

Ms. Wray died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, and Mr. Cables dedicated his most recent album on the HighNote label, also titled “My Muse,” to her memory. The album, released last fall, has had notable success on jazz radio. Its track listing includes more standards than originals, but among the songs by Mr. Cables are two of his most beloved: “Helen’s Song,” a radiant bossa nova, and “Lullaby,” an impressionistic ballad. Neither of those appeared in Wednesday’s first set.

Instead Mr. Cables seemed intent on reinvigorating lesser-known tunes from his repertory, with all the grateful enthusiasm you’d expect from someone accustomed to the role of accompanist. His band for the night featured the trumpeter Eddie Henderson, another Keystone Korner alumnus, along with a sturdy rhythm team: the veteran drummer Victor Lewis, the attentive percussionist Steve Berrios and the soulful young bassist Dezron Douglas. The material in the set was geared toward this lineup, with an emphasis on Afro-Cuban rhythm, often in polyrhythmic-triplet feel.

But Mr. Cables was also set on exploring his own songbook, in the true sense of the word, and for this he had Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a young jazz singer with an air of untroubled self-assurance. Ms. Charles sang throughout the set, outfitting most of Mr. Cables’s melodies with her own plain-spoken lyrics. On “Dark Side, Light Side” and “Sweet Rita Suite, Part II,” this had the same appealing but stitched-together quality of Andy Bey’s tenure with Horace Silver in the 1970s.

Things clicked better on “Mr. Baggy Pants,” a punchy 12-bar blues, and “Think on Me,” a jazz-funk standard, as Ms. Charles projected in a firm, clear voice, spare in her use of vibrato. And “Circle” was an elegant success, its drifting melody seamlessly paired with a reflection on romantic continuity.

“Please hold me close, so I’m not alone,” Ms. Charles sang in the chorus. “And we can go whirling out of view.”

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