Judge Dan Mancini is on the level, when he says Coleman Hawkins was the Real McCoy. Now scram.
"I made the tenor sax. There's nobody plays like me and I don't play like anybody else."—Coleman Hawkins
How important a jazzman was Coleman Hawkins? Before he came along, the tenor saxophone was an instrument for marching bands. Hawkins's rich tone and inventive soloing transformed the tenor into the axe of choice for many a player who came after him—Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins to name just a few. Hawkins began his career in the early '20s in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra where he played alongside Louis Armstrong. He went on to help create bebop along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Yet by the 1960s (the last decade of his life), he was fighting a losing battle with alcohol and, like many black jazz musicians of the era, had all but abandoned America (the birthplace of jazz) for Europe where his music was more appreciated and the color of his skin didn't force him to use separate restrooms or ride at the back of the bus. Coleman Hawkins: Live in Europe captures some choice performances from these twilight years in the life and career of this supreme musician.
Live in Europe is a collection of 15 songs from four different performances that took place between 1962 and 1966. The first five songs are by the Coleman Hawkins-Harry "Sweets" Edison Quintet at Town Hall in London, 1964. Hawkins, Edison (trumpet), Sir Charles Thompson (piano), Jimmy Woodle (bass), and Papa Jo Jones (drums) swing through a variety of songs from Kurt Weill's "September Song," to Edison's own "Centerpiece," to Juan Tizol's classic "Caravan." Though Hawkins dominates the proceedings, the other players are exemplary. "Caravan" is particularly fun as Woodle's double bass solo is followed by a playfully subdued solo by Jones who uses his fingertips on the snare and toms while making the most of his high-hat. This is small combo jazz as its best.
Next up is another performance in London, this time by the Coleman Hawkins-Benny Carter Quintet at the Royal Jazz Festival on November 26, 1966. In addition to Hawkins and Carter (on alto saxophone), the band includes Teddy Wilson on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Louie Bellson on drums. Again, Hawkins is rightly the centerpiece of the four-song set, which includes Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin's "I Can't Get Started" and "Body and Soul" by Edward Heyman, Johnny Green, and Robert Sour (Hawkins's 1939 recording of the tune is one of the most important in jazz history because of its no-holds-barred approach to improvisation). Overall, the band isn't quite as good as the Hawkins-Edison outfit, but the two saxophone players are incredible. The highlight of the performance is the band's rip-roaring run through Hawkins's own "Disorder at the Border," which features fine solo work by both Hawkins and Carter, and an aggressive solo by Bellson on a large kit.
The Coleman Hawkins Quartet—Hawkins, Oscar Peterson (piano), Sam Jones (bass), and Louis Hayes (drums)—is represented by a single song: Will Hudson and Eddie DeLange's "Moonglow," recorded in Paris in 1962. The band's in fine form, as they swing through the ultra-brief number which runs less than two minutes. Peterson does some fine comping but, unfortunately, that's all we hear from him as the tune is essentially a wall-to-wall Hawkins solo.
The final four selections are by the Coleman Hawkins Quintet, performing in Brussels, Belgium in June of 1962. All four tunes are Hawkins compositions: "Blowing for Adolphe Sax," "Disorder at the Border," "South of France Blues," and "Rifftide." The tribute to the inventor of the saxophone (a Belgian), finds Hawkins alone on stage, giving his instrument a breathy workout. For the remaining tunes, he's joined by George Arvanitas on piano, Mickey Baker on guitar, Jimmy Woods on bass, and Kansas Fields on drums. Once again, Hawkins's playing is excellent. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this performance, though, is the presence of Baker on guitar (most jazz quintets of the era would have had a trumpet or second sax). Baker, looking like a hipster in cravat and shades, takes center stage at the beginning of "South of France Blues" before turning the proceedings over to Hawkins.
The full frame transfers of Hawkins's performances are nothing to write home about. The shows were all professionally shot with multiple cameras (for television broadcast, it appears), but the sources are aged (at least one of them—the Royal Jazz Festival show—looks like it was shot on kinescope and is in fairly rough shape). Contrast is weak—black levels rarely reach into deep black, while whites don't dazzle. Source damage is minor but noticeable. Audio is presented in a straight-up PCM stereo mix that is clean but unimpressive. Dynamic range is limited. Bass is discernible, but doesn't reach down to where you can feel it in your gut. Much of the upper ranges—like the drummers' cymbal work—are washed out. Considering these are live recordings from the early 1960s, though, the audio presentation isn't bad. Hawkins's playing comes across well and that's what really matters. We should count ourselves lucky these performances were captured at all.
As a bonus, the disc also contains After Hours, director Shepard Traub's short film capturing a five-song performance by the Coleman Hawkins-Roy Eldridge Sextet in New York in 1961. The band is Hawkins, Eldridge, Barry Galbraith (guitar), Johnny Guarnieri (piano), Milt Hinton (bass), Cozy Cole (drums), and Carol Stevens (vocals). Complete with cheesy hipster voiceover, the 26-minute film attempts to provide us an insider's look at the loose, after hours jams sessions that gave rise to bebop. It's all fairly ridiculous until the band finally kicks into its numbers, running through James Sherman and Roger Ramirez's "Lover Man," Vernon Duke, Ted Fetter, and John LaTouche's "Taking a Chance on Love," and others.
New York, 1961
If you're a fan of jazz, don't let the A/V quality on this disc scare you away. While the video's only passable, the audio is solid. Most important, the performances—especially Hawkins'—are stellar.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: MVD Visual
• Bonus Tracks
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.