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Jazz's George Coleman and Harold Mabern Meet Up As Old Friends on 'The Quartet'

Partial of the album cover

Two old friends from high school and from decades of playing together, George Coleman and pianist Harold Mabern make a final date as part of the saxophonist's quartet.

The Quartet
George Coleman

Smoke Sessions

27 September 2019

Tenor saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Harold Mabern met in high school in Memphis, and both went on to become mainstays of the jazz scene in New York from the late 1950s onward. Both were conversant in the language of bebop and brought a blues-soaked soul—Memphis, remember—to the music that largely defined the "hard bop" style that was prominent in their early years. Coleman played with Ray Charles and B.B. King before coming to New York. Mabern came by way of Chicago.

The Quartet, recorded with Coleman as the leader, might as well be co-led by these two old friends. And it takes on a tinge of sadness because Mabern passed away shortly before its release. The quartet is rounded out by two younger players who were well-known to the two veterans across two decades. The date is like a favorite pair of shoes taken out for a stroll: two originals based on classic form -- a blues and a modal swinger that uses the "So What" format and seven mostly-familiar standards). There's nothing new here, and that's the point. You're listening in as a time-tested band hits the studio for the first time and show you what mature bands are all about.

Coleman is most famous for his year or so in the second Miles Davis Quintet, the player who was ultimately replaced by Wayne Shorter. But Coleman held down the tenor saxophone chair with authority and even daring on albums such as Seven Steps to Heaven and the two live discs from a 1964 Lincoln Center concert sponsored by the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC in support of voter registration in the South. After that career highlight, Coleman kept playing wonderfully, and in 2019 things are no different. To choose a mid-career date almost at random, check out his 1985 recording Manhattan Panorama (recorded live at the Village Vanguard—also with Mabern on piano). You will hear an authoritative tenor player who combines modern jazz sophistication with soulful swagger as necessary.

That is still Coleman today at a spritely 84.

Not that his playing hasn't changed at all. As an older player, Coleman has a less powerful sound, alas. It is less brawny and bold, less likely to seem to be surging from your speakers in bright colors. There are certainly high tones that crackle a bit or moments when a long phrase he is unspooling comes to a too-early halt. That's the age showing its downside. But there is upside too. There is an effortless swing, of course, particularly with a band that has so many miles on it. There is phrasing. The tone and timbre are less ringing and true but usually fascinating—like a voice that shows the gradations and layers of a life well-lived. And there is a willingness to play whatever style makes sense at the moment. Coleman at 84 isn't traditional or avant-garde, but he plays within normal harmonic rules for the most part until, Hey, let's get crazy for a second! Age seems to provide some latitude that way.

Coleman is at his best on something like this mid-ballad take on Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss". He has plenty of room to move around in the space that the rhythm section gives him, even on the theme, where he can bend a note flat, add in little fillips of embellishment, crack a note only to right it again, get breathy at will. He rewrites Ellington's melody in places, only to find that Mabern is right there with him, playing the new variation as an answer. Once his solo starts, the band gets into a hopping double-time that turns the ballad into mid-tempo swing, which allows him to dance more delightfully. He sounds lighter than on his old records here, breathier, but still puckish. When he returns on the bridge, it's to a Latin groove, and then the ballad tempo returns with Coleman playing longer runs on a final eight bars. Everything about this performance is wit. The kind of playing a younger saxophonist would never find simple. And Coleman makes it sound so simple.

The unusual tune "Lollipops and Roses" (a hit for singer Jack Jones in 1962) lets Coleman and crew play a snapping kind of waltz time, which pushes the leader to lovely knots of improvisation. That is the kind of feeling that seems to allow the older Colemen all kinds of joy as he swirls blues into the melody's written nursery rhyme vibe. Also superb while being more familiar, is the tender ballad "When I Fall in Love". At slow tempo, Coleman waggles in and out of tractional harmonic patterns, often veering into purposefully sours notes for just second before pulling the proceedings back inside. It is dramatic. But then the tempo doubles and he becomes even more creative, imagining a seemingly endless series of licks, patterns, and notions that flow out of his horn effortlessly. It is a masterful performance.

Coleman sounds even more "out" on his "Along Came Betty" solo. The Benny Golson tune has wonderful changes to blow on. But Coleman turns them inside out, playing in sour fragments that sound all the better for not being the typical kind of playing we hear on this tune.

Pianist Harold Mabern is with Coleman every step of the way on swingers like "Betty" and ballads like "When I Fall in Love". Mabern has always been a busy, strong accompanist, and he hadn't flagged at all in this, one of his final recordings. On the ballad portion of "When I Fall in Love", he is in constant motion behind the melody, playing a chordal counterpoint that is worthy of being listened to on its own. His "comping" rarely sounds like the drum-like rhythmic punching of so many post-bop pianists. Mabern is almost always thinking melodically. When the tempo doubles, his counter melodies become more jaunty but no less appealing. He feeds Coleman ideas that the two of them bat around at will. When it's time for Mabern to solo on this tune, he is a two-handed joy, playing full-bodied and in counterpoint with himself.

Perhaps the most impressive performance on The Quartet is "You've Changed", another classic ballad. Coleman begins with an abstract solo sax introduction, playing fluttering multi-phonics before the band comes in behind him with lush backing. Mabern covers everything in a gorgeous pianistic quilt as Coleman's statement of the melody turns in funky directions and flowing, snaking lines. You barely notice the start of the improvisation because it comes so seamlessly from those swirling lines and, once it has started, still incorporates hefty chunks of the written tune. Again, late in Coleman's solo, Mabern nudges the rhythm section into a skipping double-time that swings lightly, using his piano as a spark. The groove continues into the piano as a hopping two feel, with the pianist using his upper register like Basie, his lower register clomping out a famous Ahmad Jamal lick a couple of times, and both hands soon moving into an impressionistic fantasia that takes the band back to ballad tempo.

Both of the old guys shine, naturally, on the blues. "East 9th Street Blues" is a just a thrown-together theme that rolls out into a series of solos that mimic the feeling of the opening lick. Coleman puts all his action together here, in a gentle way: gutbucket feeling, multi-phonic cries, the ability to play more varied harmonic changes above the blues structure, and the ability to hold our attention for more choruses than you would think. Mabern plays it cool with a down-home single note line and little left hand, sounding a bit like Horace Silver—elegant but scuffed up too.

The other side of the date like this in 2019 is that there are thousands of recordings like it with many of the same tunes, instrumentation, and mixture of bossa, ballad, blues, and jazz standards. Hearing the band live is the right call, seeing the rapport on the stand. We don't need another example of this kind of mature mastery.

Just as we don't need another slice of cake. But having a bite is nice anyway.


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