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George Coleman: Close to Home

Martin Longley By

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George Coleman's enfolding tenor saxophone tone is the embodiment of the endangered old school sound. His warm organically bluesy embrace invites the listener to sit closer, whether this Memphis man is picking spontaneously from the standards book or maybe selecting one of his own compositions. Actually, Coleman grew up down south, getting his first big break with BB King, but he has now been ensconced in New York City for just over 50 years.

I dropped around to his East 9th Street apartment, aware that Coleman has experienced heavy trauma over the preceding months. His wife died following a long illness and his ex-wife (the mother of his two children) also passed on during that same period. As recently as January of 2009, Coleman was at the Jazz Standard with his Family Legacy band. Ex-wife Gloria played deep Hammond organ, occasionally singing, whilst George Junior was at the drums. Guitarist Eric Johnson was the only non-family member and the music took on a different gospel-soul groove slant to Coleman's accustomed performances.

Coleman began our talk by stating that he doesn't usually enjoy being interviewed, but as we progressed he seemed to warm to the idea, beginning to recall the old days more vividly, becoming steadily more animated. This is a player who has worked beside Miles Davis, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton and Herbie Hancock, to name just a smattering of his key employers. Since 1974, Coleman has concentrated on leading his own outfits, working through a variety of ensemble sizes. Recently, he's settled on a quartet format.

The glowing-yet-rugged tenor man has been threatening to retire for most of the last decade, but Coleman just can't seem to manage shying away from the spotlight. Clubland keeps making demands. He played a January residency at Jazz Standard, with George Junior on drums, Ray Drummond (bass) and Harold Mabern (piano). "I don't work steady," Coleman says. "As a matter of fact, I'm in semi-retirement. I only do special jobs. I don't travel any more. I don't go to Europe. With the economy the way it is, the people don't want to pay you the money or give you comfortable quarters. Not me, anyway!"

Lucrative offers might still be in place for players such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett, but the medium-ground stars have felt the effects of the recession. Coleman deliberately limits himself to appearances in New York City nowadays. He only goes out when the pay is right. It's been since 2001 he last played in Europe, when he toured as a guest with Ahmad Jamal, to celebrate the pianist's 70th birthday (A L'Olympia, Dreyfus).

"I can be right home in 10 or 15 minutes, from wherever I play in the city," Coleman says, with satisfied emphasis. "I ain't gotta be out there gettin' on a plane early in the morning, packin' suitcases an' all that. I'm finished with that, man. I don't like it, with all the security at the airport. That's a turn-off in itself. I'm an old man! I just turned 75 last Monday! I don't have any desire to be out there any more, man. It just gives me great pleasure, though, to see the people come out to hear us. Usually, what people say is 'man, you're the only one left' and I probably am. Dizzy, Miles, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin. All the great players that I grew up with..."

Unfortunately, Coleman has no immediate plans to record or release any older material. It's now nearly a decade since his last set of new material, the 4 Generations of Miles (Chesky Records).

Coleman also led a two-nighter at Smoke last month, he and Mabern joined by bassman John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. "Full houses both nights, with all that bad weather, all that wind and rain," Coleman says, proudly. "We were very fortunate, but we always do good up there. That's the reason for our success. We play stuff that people enjoy. They don't just clap out of respect, they clap because they enjoy what we're doing. My fans are my allies."

Mabern is an old friend. "We've been playing together for well over 50 years," says Coleman. "We started back in Memphis. It wasn't so much gigs, because they weren't paying no money. Then when I left, he played with my brother, who was a musician at that time."

Although Coleman is primarily known as a lowdown tenor man, he actually started out on the alto, inspired by Charlie Parker. It's quite possible that he might never have switched to tenor if it wasn't for a touch of fate in 1953, after joining BB King's band. "I grew up playing the blues, so it wasn't much of a transition. BB needed a tenor player. That was the real reason why I moved to the tenor. He bought the instrument for me...." Shortly after leaving King, Coleman recorded with Hammond organist Jimmy Smith and, prior to joining Miles Davis, he had a spell with trombonist Slide Hampton. The albums Coleman recorded with Miles included Seven Steps To Heaven and My Funny Valentine. The tenor man was eventually replaced by Wayne Shorter.

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