Amazingly, By George: George Cables Plays the Music of George Gershwin is only the pianist's third record for American release—his first was the 1980 Cables' Vision, followed by the 1985 Phantom of the City, both on Contemporary. Though Cables has long been known as a sideman of choice, By George makes a boldly convincing presentation of Cables as a master of acoustic jazz piano.
It's taken him a while to get there. Born in New York City on November 14, 1944, Cables was classically trained as a youth and when he started at the "Fame"-worthy High School of Performing Arts, he admittedly "didn't know anything about jazz." But he was soon smitten with the potential for freedom of expression he heard in jazz.
The young Cables was impressed by such keyboardists as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. But, he points out, "I never really listened to pianists when I was coming up. I would probably say I've been more influenced by Miles or Trane and their whole bands rather than by any single pianist. The concept of the music is more important than listening to somebody's chops, somebody's technique. The way Miles's band held together, it was just like magic. You were transported to another world."
Cables attended Mannes College of Music for two years and by 1964 he was playing in a band called the Jazz Samaritans which included such rising stars as Billy Cobham, Lenny White, and Clint Houston. Gigs around New York at the Top of the Gate, Slugs, and other clubs attracted attention to Cables’s versatility and before long he had recorded with tenor saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, played on Max Roach’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, and earned a brief 1969 tenure at the piano bench with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.
A 1969 tour with tenor titan Sonny Rollins took Cables to the West Coast. In 1971 he made the move permanent and became a significant figure in the jazz scenes of Los Angeles, where he first resided, and San Francisco, where he has lived since 1983. Collaborations and recordings with tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins (Next Album), trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw (Blackstone Legacy), and vibist Bobby Hutcherson made Cables’s wide-ranging keyboard skills, often on electric piano, amply evident. Demand for his sensitive accompaniment increased and by the end of the 1970s, Cables was garnering a reputation as everyone's favorite sideman.
Perhaps the most pivotal turn came when hard-bop legend Dexter Gordon invited Cables into his quartet in 1977. The two years he spent with the reappreciated tenor giant reignited Cables's passion for the acoustic piano and reimmersed him in the bebop vocabulary. "I don't feel that one should be stuck in the mud playing the same old stuff all the time, trying to prove that this music is valid," Cables says. "We don't need to prove anything. But I think you really have to be responsive to your heritage and then go on and find your own voice."
The longest-standing relationship Cables developed in the late Seventies was with alto saxophonist Art Pepper. Cables, whom Pepper called "Mr. Beautiful," became Art's favorite pianist, appearing on many quartet dates for Contemporary and Galaxy, and joining Art for the extraordinary duet albums, Goin' Home and Tête-à-Tête, that came from what would be Pepper's final recording session.
"I've been able to play with some of the greatest musicians in the world," Cables says, "but it's funny, if you're not seen as a bandleader, doing the same thing a lot of times, it's easy to wonder, 'Well, who are you really? What do you really feel?' And sometimes I have to ask myself that because every time I play with somebody different I have to put on a different hat."
In 1985, George recorded the highly-acclaimed Phantom of the City, a trio date with John Heard and Tony Williams that featured four Cables compositions. For his next project, the pianist was "looking to do a theme album, something to focus on, and Gershwin came immediately to mind.
"I did some research, and realized that this is the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Gershwin remains as significant as ever to the jazz artist, with his use of black themes and jazz concepts. I ended up doing mostly familiar stuff with special meaning for me—the challenge was to make it my own."
Cables produced the album, By George, and is joined by bassist John Heard and the Los Angeles drummer Ralph Penland.
Beyond his own recording, George seeks out the most stimulating contexts for his playing. Bobby Hutcherson continues to be a valued foil and Cables works frequently with Bay Area guitarist Bruce Forman and with fellow Contemporary artist Frank Morgan, with whom he has recorded a duo album (to be released this fall). George has been spending more and more time in his native New York, relishing the stimulation of the city's jazz scene. "At this point in my life," he says, "I'm trying to find out what I'm about, what I want to do now, what I want to do next. I'm just a sum of my experiences. I'm just trying to gather them together and see what I can do with this bag of tricks."
A sampling of the critical response to "Phantom of the City":
"George Cables has been one of the most effective team players in jazz. . . and he's a leader of sensitivity and substance. No ghost with his clean, crisp writing and churning styles, Cables flashes forth with a trio date of brilliance and élan."
"Cables is a two-fisted pianist. . . [and he] plays his melodies with a flourish, almost a swagger. . . . There are no weak moments on either side and. . . these cuts really swing."
"A hard-charging yet lyrical collection that is as understated as it exciting. . . . The ideas flow from Cables to his sidemen with a marvelous ease and grace."
—Will Smith, Omaha World-Herald
"He has a dancing, energetic piano style; he brings an expansive openness to his harmonies, a gritty grace to his most rapid passages. . . . [Phantom of the City is] lively, engaging, and Cables' most mature music yet."
—Neil Tesser, USA Today
"A carefully organized record that showcases his versatility, crisp technique and warm feeling in a variety of moods."
—Bruce Nixon, Dallas Times-Herald
"Cables' piano continues to be an important force in post-bop mainstream jazz."
—Chris Colombi, Cleveland Plain Dealer