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The George Coleman Quintet: In Baltimore (Reel to Real)

A review of the tenor saxophonist's ensemble recorded live at the Famous Ballroom

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The cover of In Baltimore by George Coleman
The cover of In Baltimore by George Coleman

Recorded live at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom in May of 1971, this set captures the redoubtable tenor man with a well-oiled ensemble—trumpeter Danny Moore, pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Harold White—playing with such unerring synchronicity that a listener might be excused for assuming that most of the arrangements had been laid out beforehand. Not so, according to Coleman’s testimonial in the liner notes: “[W]e didn’t do much written stuff … it was going to sound like an arrangement, which it was, but it wasn’t written … we just went in and played.”

Coleman and Moore set the tone from the start with their intro to John Lewis’ “Afternoon in Paris,” interweaving in dual improvisation before melding into a unison statement of the theme, which then segues into Coleman’s solo: bright with good humor, dancing gaily through the tune’s harmonic architecture, probing with quick-minded precision yet never sounding academic or dry. Moore expands on the freewheeling mood, interspersing a few smears to add a tinge of hipster irony. Dailey then invokes a more pastoral feel before breaking into a jubilantly swinging main passage, as Ridley and White lay down a tight rhythmic framework.

The ensemble brings similar freshness to such standards as Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” (featuring a duo workout between Coleman and White) and “Sandu” (on which Moore, rather than attempt to emulate Brown’s technical legerdemain, structures his solo in a circular fashion, returning to a stated theme and exploring fresh harmonic implications with each iteration). Especially notable is “I Got Rhythm,” reimagined as a high-octane, boppified workout. Coleman plunges through the changes with daunting dexterity, nodding only obliquely to the original theme; Dailey leaps into the fun, skittering with joyful abandon; and White contributes a wide-spectrum solo, as melodic as it is percussive. Overall, it’s the set’s most jaw-dropping technical display—yet, as throughout, relaxed, unforced, and devoid of pretension or self-indulgence.

Learn more about In Baltimore on Amazon!


Bright Moments With George Coleman

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.