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JAZZ REVIEW : Jazz Bakery Showcases Coleman's Sax

August 25, 1995|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Though saddled with an unrehearsed rhythm section and a bandage around the tip of his left ring finger, tenor saxophonist George Coleman gave a stirring opening-night performance at the Jazz Bakery on Wednesday. The former Miles Davis sideman played with expressive impact and the kind of strong character that gives his sound an identity all its own.

The New York-based musician burned confidently across the full range of his instrument, often accenting especially fiery lines with deep resonant tones sounded at the bottom of the scale. Delicate phrases during the ballad "Dedicated to You" built into sharp, pinched tones squeezed from the high end, followed by wide, equally high, singing notes that rang like the voice of an opera diva.

His most detailed work came on "Soul Eyes," as he introduced the moody tune with unaccompanied, Middle Eastern-flavored lines before moving into a long section of dissonant, warbling phrases played against the drone of the bass. He repeated certain statements for emphasis, then developed variations on them that grew in complexity. No line stood alone, all flowed easily one from the other.

A performance this good begs the question: Why doesn't Coleman enjoy the widespread popularity of his contemporary, Joe Henderson, or even Joshua Redman? Like both of these performers, he's an absorbing tenor player who is capable of making the kind of musical statements that linger in the mind long after the set is over.

Comparisons to Henderson cast Coleman in a favorable light. Both have amazing command of their instrument and a narrative sense that makes for thrilling improvisation. But there are significant differences in their styles: Coleman's sound is substantial and forthright while Henderson's is more slippery and transparent. These character traits cast each of them as rare individuals with identities that stand apart from the reed-blowing masses.

Coleman's rhythm section--bassist Andy Simpkins, drummer Willie Jones III and pianist Greg Kurstin (substituting this night only for Billy Childs)--may not have indulged in the kind of interplay and intuitive exchanges that a group well-familiar with its leader would generate. But as a vehicle for backing Coleman, they served just fine, while providing worthy solo passages of their own.

* George Coleman appears at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tonight-Sat, 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 4 and 8 p.m. $20 except Sun. matinee, $17. (310) 271-9039.

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