Jazz Institute of Chicago

George Coleman

George Coleman
by Stuart Nicholson

Live at Yoshi's
Evidence ECD 22021-2
Coleman (ten); Harold Mabern (p); Ray Drummond (bs); Alvin Queen(d).
Oakland and San Francisco
August 1987

They Say It's Wonderful, Good Morning Heartache, Laig Gobblin' Blues, Io, Up Jumped Spring, Father, Soul Eyes.

After 27 years in jazz, Coleman's first feature in a major music magazine came in 1980. There has been little else since then. And while lack of interest from the music press has scarcely been an impediment to producing great jazz, it is nevertheless a reflection of the lack of recognition that has dogged Coleman's career.

A member of B. B. King's horn section at 17, it is widely believed it was his alto solo on one of King's first hits, "Woke up this morning". Shortly afterwards he moved to Chicago and, now playing tenor, he joined the Max Roach quintet, sharing the front line with Kenny Dorham and later Booker Little and recording for Bob Shad's EmArcy label, a subsidiary of Mercury. When he replaced John Coltrane in the Miles Davis quintet in 1963, it seemed his star was in the ascendance.

Appearing on four important Davis albums, Seven Steps to Heaven (CBS/Sony 4669702), In Europe (CBS 62390), My Funny Valentine (CBS 85558) and Four and More (CBS 85560), he stayed with the trumpeter for about a year.

The latter two albums, recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, New York, in February 1964, showed Coleman to be a player of great promise, although an amalgam of his favorite saxophonists including Earl Bostic, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis.

His decision to quit Davis's group a few months after the Philharmonic concert, along with Ron Carter (who later rejoined Davis for a tour of the Far East a couple of months later), perplexed jazz fans, who thereafter were aware that the profile a run with Davis might have offered appeared to be a career opportunity missed.

Although he appeared on the Herbie Hancock album Maiden Voyage (Blue Note CDP 7 46339 2), an important album of the 1960s, Coleman's profile in jazz progressively waned during the succeeding years, despite recordings with Elvin Jones, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, and an impressive duo with the Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu, Meditation (Timeless [H] 110).

In the 1970s and early 1980s he toured and recorded with his octet, Big George (Vee Jay [J] 20YB-7015) and in 1985 recorded with his quartet, Manhattan Panorama (Evidence ECD 22019-2).

Throughout, he had been honing and refining his talent in something approaching quiet obscurity and by the mid-1980s and approaching 50, his playing was in the full flower of artistic maturity. From the breadth and depth of his accumulated life's experiences his improvisations had acquired a grandeur and vitality to an extent that during that renascent decade he was among the most commanding players in jazz, a position he maintained into the 1990s.

The imperious emotional force he brought to his playing in live performance is perfectly captured on "They say it's wonderful", "Good morning heartache" and "Soul eyes". Coleman's handling of these ballads is impressive, not only for the overall musicality of his performance, but also for his application of techniques that remain one of the most unacknowledged areas of jazz improvisation, the use of psychological principals that elicit specific emotional responses from the listener.

Because of the inherent spontaneity of a jazz performance many listeners imagine that the subjective feelings that a musician stirs within them occur equally spontaneously. Indeed most jazz criticism deliberately excludes any reference to what makes an improvisation capable of arousing emotion, as if such feelings might deny the possibility of jazz as an art form but rather confirm it as an 'entertainment', redolent of the slow-drag in New Orleans, or of jitterbugs dancing in the aisles.

But certain musical patterns correspond with certain emotional reactions, and the best jazz improvisers will take account of these factors in structuring an improvisation, particularly to create the archetypal musical sensations of tension and release. For example, moving to high notes, contrasting 'inside' and 'outside' passages or playing a passage of notes faster than the basic unit of time can all cause the listener to experience feelings of tension.

Indeed, heightening expectation (tension) and postponing resolution for a 'heroic' ending has occupied the great composers of classical music for centuries. As Hindemith has pointed out,

[A composer] knows by experience that certain patterns of tone-setting correspond with certain emotional reactions on the listener's part...with frequent references to those musical progressions that evoke the uncomplicated feeling-images of sadness or gaiety in an unambiguous form, he can reach a fairly close approximation to unanimity of all listeners' reactions.[i]

It is hardly surprising therefore, that many jazz musicians, in their own modest way, should take account of such principles in organizing their material so as to manipulate their audience's emotions.

What is interesting about Coleman's performances here is the succinct deployment of such devices to create tension and release, and the structured way in which he approaches this, building his improvisations up from the ground in a series of stages that unfold like a journey into the very heart of the song.

Coleman's performance of "They say it's wonderful", a 32-bar AABA standard, was inspired by the much neglected 1963 collaboration between John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse! GRD 157).

After Mabern's introduction, Coleman freely essays the Irving Berlin melody in a breathy subtone. The rhythm section, who work hand-in-glove with Coleman throughout the album, play a decorative two-beat with Mabern adopting a rhapsodic role in accompaniment, frequently using the sustaining pedal of the piano to give a particularly ringing quality to his playing.

As Coleman's improvisation opens at the second chorus, his tone becomes appreciably steelier, and he introduces several key motifs that will appear in succeeding choruses either in variation or much embellished form. Mabern's accompaniment now changes to goading, bright, staccato chords, quite unlike conventional comping, while bass and drums hold an implacable two. Coleman, however, suggests a regular four in his line, creating an inherent tension through this duality of meter.

The third chorus appears to release the tension as the rhythm section move into four, but now Coleman strongly implies double-time throughout the chorus, so the expected release never comes. On the fourth chorus, the rhythm section doubles the tempo and the feeling of release is palpable, but as Coleman soars, Drummond hints at returning to two, continuing the rhythmic tension, which throughout has been gradually tightened like a tourniquet.

Now, as Queen follows Coleman into double-time, Drummond briefly joins him but then returns to a decorative two, and the contrasting meters again combine to create tension. This sort of rhythmic interplay and playing-off one another can only be achieved by working regularly together and being acutely aware of each other's role in the totality of the performance.

While at one level the rhythm section remains focused on their role of creating tension through their collective rhythmic counterpoint to Coleman's soloing, the saxophonist himself is working simultaneously at three levels to intensify the performance: rhythmically, harmonically and melodically.

Coleman employs the effectiveness of the rising line to create tension, since the more a line continues to rise the more we anticipate change. When the change occurs, our expectations are fulfilled and we experience a release, a technique which Coleman manipulates supremely well. He gradually reaches higher and higher into the saxophone's range, often using alternate fingering to intensify his phrases while equally making use of side-slipping (providing a contrast between consonance and dissonance) and the simple subterfuge of increasing the drama of his line by playing more notes.

These devices, manipulated one against the other through each level of his solo, together with the sheer authority he brings to his improvisations, produce a succession of choruses that build logically into a dramatic and memorable performance that communicates as readily with his live audience as it does through compact disc.

"Good morning heartache" uses the same structured technique of building chorus by chorus and is the finest performance of the album. The song was originally written for Billie Holiday and was commissioned by Milt Gabler, her then record producer at Decca Records, and was specifically tailored to her night club image of a woman unlucky in love. A 32-bar AABA form, it is a very well constructed song, both harmonically and melodically, with a pleasing major/minor ambivalence (it is written in the major).

For almost four decades the song remained so closely associated with Holiday it was seldom performed by jazz musicians, and only in the 1980s and 1990s did it find favor as a vehicle for improvisation, something it richly deserved with its interesting changes and extended voicings in the middle eight. Coleman's was one of the first contemporaneous versions that broke the strong subjective association with Holiday.

Coleman opens after Mabern has set him up with a tasteful four-bar introduction, the saxophonist content to play a mildly embellished version of the theme. Behind him, the pianist provides another rhapsodic backdrop with the bass and drums playing a discreet two. As Coleman launches into his improvisation on the second chorus, Mabern abruptly lays-out for 16 bars (the first two AA sections), rejoining at the middle eight, but now the bass, drums and Coleman tease the listener with implied double time, albeit still remaining in the basic two.
When Coleman and rhythm section do break into double time at the beginning of the third chorus, the effect is electric. At the end of the third chorus, Coleman inserts a 16-bar transition that he uses in a particularly dramatic way. He introduces a highly embellished form of a motif he had previously been developing in the second and third chorus, repeating it over and over using double-breathing so as not to pause for breath.

It provides a dramatic high-spot in the performance which he then seeks to top with the sheer force of his melodicism for two further choruses, reaching from bell notes to high, under-the-palm shrieks. At the end of the fourth full chorus, he winds down and moves back into the original tempo in two. Playing only eight bars of A, he leads into a rubato finish and it is clear that this has been a tour-de-force by a master improviser.

Coleman is an exemplary blues player, and he takes an elemental riff in 5/4 to provide a simple head for "Laig gobblin' blues" and takes several chorus that see him side-slipping and utilizing the full range of his instrument. It also provides the first extended solo by Mabern, a much neglected pianist[ii] and a long-time associate of Coleman's (they attended the same school together in Memphis).

In it he employs his trade-mark, ringing block chords played as staccato quavers that sustains the heat of the creative moment. Both this and "Io", a contemporary vehicle that moves effortlessly in 7/4 with effective solos from Coleman, Mabern and Queen, were recorded in the studios in San Francisco after the live date.

The Freddie Hubbard composition "Up jumped spring" in 3/4, recorded live, provides another elegant showcase for Coleman and Mabern, each of whose solos generate a hypnotic swaying feel, while "Father", another studio cut, is a congenial Coleman original that perhaps lacks the intensity and drive that grips his playing when performing live.

Climaxing the album is the Mal Waldron classic "Soul eyes", which receives a warm exposition of the melody from Coleman before he builds the performance block by block until he has constructed a glittering temple, reinforcing the feeling that here was an unacknowledged latter-day master of the saxophone.

The song also acts as a feature for Mabern, another player careful not to play his hand early. A rousing, percussive pianist capable of moments of graceful introspection, his playing was washed with the feeling of the blues. Far from tempering his style when working alongside a dominant personality like Coleman, they ascend and descend the rungs of a song together, each pushing at the limits of their style in search of shared truths, a working partnership aware of each other's most intimate musical secrets.

In a career that had conspicuously lacked recognition, Coleman might have felt that performances such as these merited, at the very least, a raised eyebrow from the recording industry. Musical fashion dictated otherwise, however. In an area of jazz he had spent a lifetime mastering, record companies were looking elsewhere, at young, photogenic talent, some often fresh out of music college.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, jazz was awash with albums by young débutantes. On the one hand unreasonable expectation was raised with the arrival of each new whizz-kid, some as young as the 14-year-old, GRP-signing Amani Murray, while on the other, jazz had still to come to terms with the fact that in wooing the future it was overlooking the present.

In the rush to sign the youngest and the fastest, Coleman and others like him were relegated to the sidelines and the lack of recognition that is the inevitable result of inadequate recording exposure. And although The New Yorker noted in 1995 that 'Coleman is a marvel; there isn't a sax player who knows his instrument better, or one who imparts so much knowledge in every marathon solo',[iii] by then he had made only two more albums since Live at Yoshi's.

i. Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World (Anchor Books, New York, 1961), p42 and p51.
ii. An oversight corrected in 1995 by Sony with Mabern's fine album The Leading Man (Columbia 477288-2).
iii. The New Yorker, 31 July 1995, p16.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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