May 19, 2024

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CD review: George Coleman – Live At Smalls Jazz Club – 2023: Video, CD cover

Saxophonist George Coleman’s career began in the early 1950s backing B.B. King.

“Well, I’m more adventurous now,” he says, modestly enough, in the liner notes for his latest album, recorded at New York’s Smalls Jazz Club on March 15, 2022. In the ‘60s Coleman played with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis before establishing his solo career.

On Live at Smalls, he performs one of Davis’s most luscious compositions, “Four,” and circles around a lifetime of influences. An echo of the blues can be heard in his ruminative take on “My Funny Valentine,” whose flexible time frame gives pianist Spike Wilner and bassist Peter Washington plenty of room to muse on their instruments. Throughout the session, whether on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s

Lively “Meditation” or Hoagy Carmichael’s endearing “Nearness of You,” Coleman’s tenor sax runs like clear water across and around the melodies, reshaping them in a river of imaginative play.

The Memphis-born tenor titan and NEA Jazz Master George Coleman has certainly evolved since his blues playing days with the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles in the ‘50s, and as a core but brief member of Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet in the ‘60s, not to mention sideman appearances with Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Smith, Chet Baker, others, and his fifteen albums as a leader.

Yes, Coleman is still reaching, still exploring, and still, although seated for gigs these days, enjoying performing fairly regularly, which he has done for 70 years now. Fittingly this may be the last installment of the Smalls Live Living Masters Series, which has included Kirk Lightsey (covered on these pages), Sheila Jordan, Dave Liebman, Jesse Davis, and Tyler Mitchell/Marshall Allen. Coleman fronts a backing trio of swinging drummer and producer Joe Farnsworth, pianist and club owner Spike Wilner, and in-demand bassist Peter Washington for George Coleman Live at Smalls Jazz Club.

The set list is a group of standards meant to represent Coleman’s career (“tell a complete story our fans will enjoy”) and specifically his time in New York although he also engages in blues via “At Last” and his own “Blues for Smalls” because inevitably the blues is a pillar of Coleman’s style and also speaks to his preference for ballads, of which there are several. The opener, “Four,” the title track of the 1964 Miles Davis album, might be Coleman’s most notable tune associated with his time with Miles. Coleman leads the group through an elongated intro that states the melody before kicking into the familiar up-tempo swing with an energetic solo that not only belies his age but displays his rich melodic vocabulary. When Coleman states that his technique has continued to improve over the years and is still moving in that direction, a listen to this track alone will convince any doubters. In fact, in the past couple of years Zev Feldman and Cory Weeds have unearthed scorching Coleman performances from the early ‘70s at Baltimore’s Left Band Society (2022’s George Coleman Live in Baltimore and 2023’s Shirley Scott’s Queen Talks Live at the Left Bank), and remarkably Coleman’s vitality in this set is comparable to those.

The group continues with a mid-tempo exploration of the classic “At Last.” Here Coleman digs deep, pre-Miles period, with a mix of bebop, hardbop, and that growling ‘50s R&B sound. Coleman’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine” also borrows from his Miles period but this version is so chillingly soulful that it completely stunned the audience. Wilner and Washington go enticingly tenderly in their solos as well while Farnsworth stays ever so subtle with his brushes.

In recent years Coleman has shown his affection for Brazilian music too and he shows that side with his swinging, animated take on Jobim’s bossa nova classic “Meditation.” Wilner then sets the rollicking tempo for Coleman’s trademark robust bluesy attack in the original “Blues for Smalls.” The last three in the set play to the notion of fan favorites, a sublime, impassioned “The Nearness of You,” a rousing interpretation of Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and his emotive take on “When Sunny Gets Blue,” which reveals as much as any performance in this set, his remarkable chemistry with Wilner.

Live At Small's Jazz Club | George Coleman QuintetLive At Small's Jazz Club | George Coleman Quintet

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