CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

George Coleman: The Quartet (Smoke Sessions)

A review of the first studio album from the tenor saxophonist's long-time group

George Coleman, The Quartet
The cover of The Quartet by George Coleman

It took nearly 20 years for tenor saxophonist George Coleman to bring his working quartet (featuring the late pianist Harold Mabern, in one of his final recording sessions, along with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth) into the studio. That wait time is the only real complaint about The Quartet. It’s as straight-ahead an album as it gets, created by an octogenarian who—despite being an NEA Jazz Master—remains undervalued in his greatness.

Greatness is assuredly the only word applicable to the player behind this samba-fied take of “I Wish You Love.” Coleman trips the light fantastic, plotting his phrases carefully and concisely, always mindful of the beat but slipping ahead and behind as each phrase dictates. For all his light touch, though (here as well as on sweeter pieces, like “You’ve Changed”), he also applies a gruff growl to the edge of his tone. On the intro to “You’ve Changed,” he even tweaks that growl into dissonant, faintly avant-garde whines. It’s a warning that even though he can retract them, Coleman still has claws.

They never quite come all the way out, though a good bit of them are bared on the spontaneously composed “East 9th Street Blues.” He still phrases judiciously (though not for lack of ideas: the tenor solo comprises 17 choruses), but punctuates with guttural moans, shrieks, and even some lowdown honking. That same tune, though, also shows how Coleman’s chemistry with his band is crucial to his magic. Farnsworth’s popping accents become the wireframes from which the sax hangs, and Webber’s bass provides the contour (which it will do even more on the closing “Triste”).

In particular, Coleman’s relationship with Mabern, his fellow Memphian and 70-year collaborator, is glorious. The pianist turns even the saxophonist’s longer and more linear lines into conversation; he also makes his own steely vamps on “Paul’s Call” sound tailored to Coleman’s extemporizations, and he approaches the jaunty “Prelude to a Kiss” with the energy of a playful duet.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.