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Jazz can be a battlefield, and jazz can be a canvas for synthesis. It’s often busy being both.


In the ‘60s, traditional forms of jazz were at war with atonal “free jazz”, and the synthesis created thrilling free-bop. A scintillating fusion of rock and jazz emerged in the ‘70s, but the controversy swelled—creating both good music and some certain indulgence. Similar dust-ups can be documented in which jazz tumbles across the line into classical minimalism or anything else you could not have heard before 1950.


Which brings us to the brilliant, sometimes boring but frequently thrilling, Steve Coleman: an innovator and a synthesizer, a battler and a consolidator.


Steve Coleman Emerges in the ‘80s
In the ‘80s, a surge of young jazz musicians raised on funk and newly schooled in hip hop shot through jazz like a bolt of adrenaline, among them an acid-toned alto player from Chicago. Coleman was a young lion, but he was neither green nor neo-traditional, which is to say, he was not just another Marsalis kid.


cover art

Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

(Pi; US: 8 Jun 2010; UK: 7 Jun 2010)

Review [1.Aug.2010]

Coleman seemed to enter onto the scene very nearly fully formed, in the process of developing a unique vocabulary/methodology for his music and with a posse of followers who looked to him for a path forward. His methodology had a name: M-Base (“Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations”), which was not a style as much as a way of thinking about improvisation and composition in a non-western, integrated manner.


His first recording, Motherland Pulse, is from 1985 and features the basis of Coleman’s style and several key collaborators: Geri Allen on keyboards, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, cornetist Graham Haynes, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Inspiration clearly comes from funk, from African music, from jazz, and from some Asian music. A comparable line-up, with Wilson making striking appearances on a few tunes per session, and a similar sound materialized on a string of discs in the next five years.


The obscure Sine Die from 1988 (on the new, and short-lived, Pangea label) was a clarion call. Here, Coleman’s makes direct and thrilling jazz from his funk grooves. The rhythm section of Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Kevin Bruce Harris and David Gilmore are not laying down a jazz simulacrum of funk but the real thing, while Coleman charts jittery patterns of irregularity that give the music an exciting thrust. 


The opener, “Destination”, is the catchiest 7/4 tune of its era, and Cassandra Wilson is given plenty of room for her charismatic sound, harmonizing in spooky intervals while none other than Branford Marsalis guests with pungent tenor lines and Geri Allen litters the landscape with tangy synthesizer. Just as good are “Soul Melange”, with a snappy strut of a horn line and more of Wilson’s best early singing, and “Proteus”, where Coleman duels in acid with Baltimore’s brawny Gary Thomas on tenor. Elsewhere, James Weidman (piano), Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Haynes all get a chance to shine on knotty but incredibly fun jazz.  Sine Die was truly of its moment, but it also stands up well 22 years later.


Steve Coleman, Traditionalist of a Sort
So, Coleman is a forward-looking musician with his own cadre of like-minded collaborators and a taste for pop influences. Except from the start he was also a man of tradition.


In 1991 he recorded the unusual Rhythm in Mind for Novus, featuring his important influence, Von Freeman, pianist Tommy Flanagan, as well as the bulk of Dave Holland’s group (Kenny Wheeler, Kevin Eubanks, “Smitty” Smith again). This disc does not eschew Coleman’s funk aesthetic as much as it links it back to the swing tradition. The two Thad Jones tunes recorded here have an easy sense of traditional pocket, and Holland’s “Pass It On” has a grooving lope that is part New Orleans parade groove and part modern jazz.


However, Coleman’s tunes for this project (part of a George Wein-sponsored celebration of the bicentennial of Carnegie Hall—talk about tradition) subtly morph this sound. “Left of Center” sets up an asymmetrical bass line that is doubled by guitar then taken up by the horns as a separate section plays a half-time traditional melody. “Vet Blues” has a brooding melody that sits atop another burbling groove in the drums and doubled by cantering horns. Add to these tunes a beautiful and unexpected Coleman ballad, “Sweet Dawn”, and you a have a recording that should have seemed like a perfect combination of new and old techniques in jazz, steeped in feeling.


Even on Coleman’s regular recordings of the ‘90s, it was not unusual for him to record a standard. “Salt Peanuts” got a rollicking funk treatment on 1995’s Def Trance Beat and came out no less worse for the wear. If flirtation with pop and soul had truly ruined jazz in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then Coleman was from another reality.


As it turns out, though, neither Sine Die nor Rhythm in Mind made much obvious impact. Coleman was a respected member of the jazz scene, sure, but hardly a Marsalis or even a Greg Osby, who started out with him. Indeed, by 1991, Osby was signed to Blue Note where he recorded 15 albums over 15 years and made the kind of direct mainstream impact that Coleman wasn’t destined to make and, mostly likely, did not seek to make.


Steve Coleman, Iconoclast
Quite aside from giving his music a high-minded and obscure stylistic name (M-BASE), Coleman set himself up from early on as a hard-to-pin-down artist. The Sine Die album notes included quotes not only from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but also rapper Rakim, lines from Japanese movies, and Muhammad Ali. At some point Coleman starting giving away his music for free on the Internet, writing, “Why should everything always cost something? For me music is organized sound that can be used as sonic symbols to communicate ideas. Since my main goal is the communication of these ideas to the people, then why not provide this music for free and thereby facilitating the distribution of this music to the people.”


This, in short, was no typical cat.


While he lasted on various RCA labels through 2001, it was probably inevitable that Coleman would become an independent artist. His bands of the later-‘90s were still using funk rhythms, of course, but other influences were making their way into his music, as well. Trips to the east and to Africa brought more and more non-western influences to bear, and Coleman’s compositions sounded increasingly like complex and compelling exercises.  It’s not that they didn’t groove or weren’t rich in melody, but rather that there was a deliberateness about them that gave them a theoretical quality.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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