Cruising Through With Precision

New York Times
April 11, 2003 

In George Coleman's sort of jazz, displays of speed are essential. But so is density, weightiness, and soul. How he links up all those attributes is the story of hard bop, the late-50's-to-early-60's category that he's usually associated with. But it's also the story of his current quartet, which has shaped up into a tight, organized band over the last few years.

Mr. Coleman comes from Memphis, as does his pianist, Harold Mabern; the pair has been working together off and on for more than 40 years, and they play busily together, building up steam only to dispel it with precision. On April 4, Mr. Mabern carpeted each tune with thick chords, almost never letting up until it was time for a bass or drum solo at which point, instead of trudging through a dull accompaniment, he enacted spare, nicely worked-out arrangements to accent the solo.

Those who have heard records of Mr. Coleman with the Miles Davis quintet in 1964 would recognize his relaxed blues language, and his deep, spacious tone. And they'd recognize the fractured modernity of his phrasing as he wound through the chord changes of tunes like the standard ``There Is No Greater Love'' (which is on one of those 1964 albums) and Lee Morgan's ``Speedball.'' But what has changed is a matter of efficacy, of practice at one's craft. He is both a better high-modern player, streaking through bebop phrases in disconnected lumps of phrasing until they finally become enjoined, and a better, fuller blues player than before, as he showed on Mr. Mabern's ``Blues for Phineas,'' the best tune of the night.

This new working band, with John Webber on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums, radiates the great feeling of acting together. But Mr. Coleman is a relentlessly upbeat player, and the music rarely took its time: what passed for a ballad, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's ``Where Is the Love,'' cruised by without leaving traces.