In 2015 the National Endowment for the Arts confirmed what countless listeners have known for the last six decades by naming tenor saxophonist George Coleman an NEA Jazz Master. A man of few words, Coleman nonetheless conveys his thoughts with unparalleled eloquence when he speaks through his instrument, as profoundly evidenced by the nine tracks on A Master Speaks, his long-overdue return to the studio.
Scheduled for release April 8 via Smoke Sessions Records, A Master Speaks is Coleman's first release as a leader in nearly 20 years and first recording since the 2002 all-star live tribute album Four Generations of Miles. The rarity of the session is remarkable in itself; even more special is that fact that it grew out of a desire shared by Coleman and his son, drummer George Coleman Jr., to finally record together.
They're joined by a stellar band featuring pianist Mike LeDonne and bassist Bob Cranshaw, with guitarist Peter Bernstein making a special guest appearance. This date was produced by Paul Stache and saxophonist Eric Alexander--a disciple of Coleman's heartfelt, muscular style--who were able to realize a shared dream in documenting this master and his art they have loved for decades.
"I don't really enjoy recording all that much these days," Coleman admits, "but I was really happy to do this one with Smoke. I'm at the end game, you know, the twilight of my career, so maybe it was time."
At 80-years-old, Coleman sounds, as ever, both vital and timeless, suggesting that any "end game" he finds himself in may well stretch into overtime. He's obviously invigorated by the deep sense of swing and classic hard-bop feel of the quartet he's assembled. With his father's tone and feel in his ears and in his blood from birth, George Jr. can't help but provide the perfect rhythm for Coleman's husky melodicism.
Two years Coleman's elder, Cranshaw is no stranger to anchoring the imaginative musings of a tenor giant, having spent nearly fifty years accompanying the great Sonny Rollins. LeDonne, meanwhile, has forged a relationship with Coleman through the saxophonist's frequent guest appearances with LeDonne's Groover Quartet, which also features Alexander, Bernstein, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Coleman has become a regular at the quartet's long running Tuesday night residency at Smoke (as has Cranshaw), and LeDonne and Cranshaw also served as the tenorman's backing band at the club for a special appearance last fall.
"The spontaneity of it all is what make jazz so special," Coleman posits. "You don't know how it's going to turn out... What I've always tried to do is what that old cliché says: play a reasonable facsimile of what you really want to do. If you can get through it without embarrassing yourself then you say, 'I'll take it.' That's the way I look at it."
It's hard to imagine the music on A Master Speaks as falling short in anyone's mind except for Coleman's. The album begins with a warm and sinuous take on the Bronislau Kaper standard "Invitation," a prime example of the saxophonist's gift for melodic interpretation. It's followed by another classic, "The Shadow of Your Smile," played with a raw tenderness and an elegant, lilting LeDonne solo.
"Blues For B.B." pays homage to one of Coleman's earliest mentors and employers, blues legend B.B. King. The leader bridges the decades to his Memphis blues roots, while Bernstein steps in with a solo that subtly evokes King's unmistakable sound. "Blondie's Waltz" is brighter, a joyous spin around the dance floor culminating with a spotlight turn for George Jr., while "You'll Never Know What You Mean To Me" maintains the upbeat mood with a sprightly stroll highlighted by Coleman's burly blowing and a fleet-fingered LeDonne sprint.
The pianist provides an aching intro to the classic ballad "Darn That Dream" and duets with Coleman on a stunning rendition of "These Foolish Things," one of several numbers the pair played together at a reception at Smoke following his NEA induction. A simmering groove drives "Sonny's Playground," providing father and son a chance to trade and cedes the stage to Cranshaw for a masterly walking solo. "Time To Get Down" brings things to a close with a lively, vintage last-call jam session spirit.
Like the pronouncements of a sage, A Master Speaks communicates both wisdom and wonder that bespeaks Coleman's half century in music. From his roots in music-rich Memphis through his work with legends ranging from B.B. King who took Coleman to buy his first tenor to Max Roach to Slide Hampton and his renowned tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet, Coleman established himself as one of jazz's most soulful and expressive voices. It's there on the unforgettable melodies of Herbie Hancock's landmark Maiden Voyage as it is 30 years later on the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington/Whitney Houston film The Preacher's Wife.
Last year he joined the anointed ranks of NEA Jazz Masters in a class that also included fellow Memphian Charles Lloyd as well as pianist/composer/arranger Carla Bley and Chicago club owner Joe Segal. It was a well-deserved honor for a jazz legend who continues to let his music do the talking.
George Coleman · A Master Speaks
George Coleman · A Master Speaks
Smoke Sessions Records · Release Date: April 8, 2016