George Coleman: Close to Home
Mabern, Webber and Farnsworth will also be on hand for this month's six-night stint at Dizzy's Club. Although technically billed as part of the club's Sing Into Spring season there are, oddly, no plans for any guest vocalists to appear. Fellow tenor man Eric Alexander will be guesting, providing the voice of his horn. Coleman has been one of Alexander's chief influences. "People say so. He's sort of my protégé," Coleman agrees. The two have been playing together with a fair degree of regularity.
Perhaps as expected, Coleman has no idea what the band's repertoire will be at Dizzy's. "Sometimes I bring a list and I'll take a glance at it from time to time. I'll ask the guys, what would you like to be featured on? We just move it around. We play ballads, Latin, blues. I don't play too much of my own stuff. I play "Amsterdam" every once in a while. That's one that people like, a Latin thing that I composed back in the '70s. Eric just recorded a composition of mine that was written for my octet, called "Revival Of The Fittest." I never was crazy about my own compositions, but the way he played it, I said, wow, that sounds like a pretty decent tune."
Even so, Coleman is eager for a re-awakening of his composing side, as he's just moved his Fender Rhodes electric piano back into the apartment.
When I ask him about what's perceived as a husky, bluesy edge to his tenor tone, Coleman doesn't admit to this being a result of his Memphis upbringing: "I divorced that many years ago. It's international, universal. We're not crafting in any special category. We love bebop, we play the stuff of yesteryear. We play ballads that date back to the Irving Berlin era and way back to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. We bypass somewhat the Ornette Coleman era, we don't do too much of that. I played "When The Saints Go Marching In" with Lionel Hampton. That was one of the featured numbers of the night. All the guys would get off the stand and go march around the venue. He had an interesting book, some nice arrangements. Thad Jones did a couple for him, Frank Foster too."
Coleman was with Hampton in 1965, representing a stylistic step backwards in time following his appearance on Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage album. "I was never in anybody's band for over a year, man, in the whole of my career!" he laughs. Coleman found some kind of stability once he decided to concentrate on running his own bands, from 1974 onwards. His most ambitious setting was the octet group, where his compositional and arranging activities were probably at their peak.
"I was hearing those kind of things. I grew up with guys that were very talented in those areas. I was 17 years old. I'd never been to any conservatory at all, but I could write an arrangement. Just out of my own intuitiveness and expertise. I had good ears and I knew something about harmony."
Coleman appears to be concerned about the way jazz evolved in the middle '60s. On the one hand, he seems to reject freely improvised experimentation, but conversely such methods (and his rejection of them) weigh on his mind somewhat. "There were some guys that were playing differently that could have been considered 'out,' like Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis. His approach to saxophone playing was very unique and creative. You can't find no guys that can emulate him. Guys sound like John Coltrane, but you can't find nobody that sounds like Lockjaw." Coleman also cites Paul Gonsalves as a particular favorite, perhaps overlooked nowadays.
Of course, this is a man who played with one of jazz music's most innovative figures, the drummer Max Roach. Coleman joined the quintet in 1958, travelling to Chicago with his old friend trumpeter Booker Little. It was Roach who soon prompted a mass exodus to New York City, where Coleman has lived ever since.
"First of all, no one could play as fast as him [Roach]," Coleman recalls. "He was the king of playing up-tempo. When I joined the band, that was a challenge. I hadn't been playing that long. It was different because we were playing fast and there was no keyboard, just the bass playing one note. We were following the harmonic structures."