George Coleman: Memphis Modes
Today is George Coleman's 78th birthday. We'll hear the Memphis native in tonight's Jazz a la Mode.
I last saw Big George on November 17 in Hartford; while his gait has slowed a bit, he was in commanding form on a late afternoon concert at Faith Congregational Church. It was presented in the series produced by Hartford's resident bass master Paul Brown, who's provided area audiences with several opportunities to see Coleman at Bushnell Park and other venues over the years. (Speaking of CT, that's Windsor native, bassist Luques Curtis, pictured in the photo with George.)
Another figure with local ties, Lena Bloch, the tenor saxophonist who earned a Masters in Music at UMass before moving to Brooklyn a few years ago, is spearheading a campaign to have Coleman considered by the NEA for one of its coveted Jazz Masters awards. Read more about Lena's initiative here.
I can think of few living players who are more deserving of the NEA honor than George, who played an important role on mid-60's classics by Miles Davis (Seven Steps to Heaven, and numerous concert recordings) and Herbie Hancock (Maiden Voyage). Unfortunately, Coleman's muscular tone and bluesy lyricism made him less compelling to critics than Trane, Wayne, and Joe Henderson, but his ease of movement between modes and chordal harmony has made him a model for straight-ahead tenor players ever since. The lack of critical attention may also have resulted in the paucity of recordings he's made as a leader. But in 1975, he recorded Eastern Rebellion with Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins, and it remains one of the few Desert Island essentials of that decade. Earlier in his career, which began with a couple of tours with B.B. King, Coleman was the front line partner with fellow Memphis native Booker Little in Max Roach's Quintet. His soulful tenor has also been heard on sessions led by organists Jimmy Smith, Reuben Wilson, Big John Patton, and Joey DeFrancesco.
Here's the George Coleman Quartet on a television series hosted by London nightclub owner Ronnie Scott, who knows from "great" as tenor players go. Hilton Ruiz is at the piano, Herbie Lewis is on bass, and Billy Higgins is on drums.