Monday 6 March 2023

George Coleman Quartet - 'Amsterdam After Dark'

The number 89 has figured highly these last few days in my chunk of grey matter dedicated to jazz. The irreplaceable Wayne Shorter packed his tenor and soprano saxes for the ultimate trip on the 2nd March, 2023. And 'Big George' Coleman is celebrating his 89th birthday with a residence at the Smoke club in New York. My man in Manhattan tells me that he saw George's quartet not long ago at Smalls. It could have been this very concert. The great man apparently had to remain seated for most of the time, but he still sounded good. For such a big man, he has always had the kind of lightness and delicacy of tone that has long made him one of my favourite tenor saxophonists. In a short masterclass video, he talks of how you don't have to squawk and wail, 'you play something really crisp and clean', the hallmark of his long career.

I looked initially for a video from 1989, but that would have been just too darn neat. I was very tempted by a long video of Coleman's octet, especially as the pianist was his fellow Memphis musician, Harold Mabern, who was featured last time out in the company of Lee Morgan. But the tenor solo time is devoted to Sal Nistico rather than Big George. Besides, rather too much time is allocated to Billy Higgins' drum solo and, with the performance clocking in at 15 minutes, viewers might find their patience wearing thin.

For much of his career, though, George Coleman led his own quartet, so what more appropriate than this particular appearance in the last of four editions of Scottish Television's The Jazz Series? And who more appropriate to introduce it than Ronnie Scott, at whose club George Coleman played on several occasions, recording a 'damn fine' live album (Playing Changes) in 1979 with almost the same personnel as here in 1981? Herbie Lewis stands in for the rotund Ray Drummond. 'Smilin' Billy' Higgins is the drummer once more, this time treating us to a brief, educated solo. The pianist is one of the great Latin jazz keyboard masters, who was equally at home in a pure jazz context. Hilton Ruiz died freakishly and tragically prematurely when he fell on the street in New Orleans, having gone to the city to take part in a video to promote a recording in aid of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. I was lucky enough to see him play on three occasions, the first as part of the New York All Stars at the 1986 North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haag, playing with such funky fire and graceful ease that he knocked me off my feet – even though I was seated. Alas, his is only an abbreviated solo, which is why this live version doesn't quite scale the heights of the recorded one, the title track of Coleman's splendid Amsterdam After Dark for Timeless in 1979. Nevertheless, the video's still a ripper and it provides a precious glimpse of the saxophonist playing probably his finest composition live.

George Coleman's career has been long and varied, without ever scaling the heights commensurate with his talent. It's probably typified by his brief time with Miles Davis as the bridge between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, gracing some live recordings and a kind of stop-gap studio album, Seven Steps To Heaven. He was briefly with Max Roach's famous group of the 1950s and, like many others, recorded with Lee Morgan. He may not be quite up at the same level as Sonny Rollins, 92 at time of writing and still going strong, in the pantheon of jazz tenor saxophonists, but few can boast a career of seventy-plus years, and few earned the approval of such a hard and demanding boss as Miles Davis, who said of him that 'George played almost everything perfectly.' He was indeed 'a hell of a musician.'


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