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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Pianist George Cables carves his own musical path through jazz

Alan Nahigian
Joanne Klein

You’d be forgiven for referring to pianist George Cables as a skilled sideman in the annals of jazz. There’s no denying that he’s played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard.

However, Cables is also known as a bandleader with nearly 40 albums and many gorgeous compositions that have been covered by jazz stars, young and old.

Cables' story began with classical training as a youth in New York. Like many other jazz artists who started down a classical path, the freedom of expression that jazz encouraged, let alone allowed, was too enticing to turn down.

By the mid-'60s, he played in a band called The Jazz Samaritans with guys like Billy Cobham and Lenny White. Touring with Sonny Rollins took Cables out west, where he set up shop, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco.

In his artist biography, Cables acknowledges he’s been able to play with some of the greatest musicians in the world. But when it comes to being in the supportive role, he says: “If you’re not seen as a bandleader, it’s easy to wonder, 'Well, who are you really? What do you really feel?'"

Finding that out would require Cables to carve his own path, which he’s done.

The original compositions started flowing around 1970, followed by headlining albums and concerts, and interpreting the works of others. In the liner notes to his 1987 album By George, Cables paid tribute to George Gershwin. He mentioned how, even though it was intended to be through his own eyes, the music seems to almost play itself.

That may be, but Cables might have been a little too humble about what he brought to the table for that project. You can feel Cables' distinct touch in the flourishes on his solo version of “Embraceable You."

Bassist Essiet Essiet has played on five of Cables’ albums and many live dates over the years.

“He’s just a positive guy; he’s never negative. I think I’ve seen him get angry once, maybe twice. And when you play with him, you’re always on your toes," Essiet said in an interview with KNKX.

"I’ve been playing with him for a while – over 20 years – and his songs are always challenging, even now. He’s always bringing new arrangements and stylings. I always look forward to playing with him."

Cables is a charter member of The Cookers, a band founded in 2010. If there ever was tension in his life straddling the sideman versus leader roles, The Cookers might be the perfect compromise. It’s one of those rare supergroups where legendary players like Eddie Henderson, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, and others share equal billing, collaborating on a team that hums like a fine-tuned engine.

In February, The Cookers performed a KNKX Studio Session. After their set, I asked Cables about “Helen’s Song,” a touching piece he wrote in honor of Helen Wray, his soulmate of 28 years.

He said it’s always interesting to hear how somebody else interprets a song he’s written, but he’s definitely not possessive about it. Cables said original compositions are like kids: they grow up and have a life of their own.

If songs are like children, George Cables has been a proud and prosperous parent of an important jazz family.

Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Carl Pogue fell in love with radio ever since getting a degree in the field over three decades ago. He’s spent his entire working career at commercial and public stations, with stops in Portland, San Diego, as well as NPR’s furthest affiliates on the Micronesian islands of Guam and Saipan.