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Theory & Disconnect

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Take 1999’s The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing. The title of the album alone might be enough to scare off a casual fan. The music itself is hugely varied, a mixture of passion and knowing experiment. “The Twelve Powers” is a churning rhythmic workout, with pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris both playing thrilling, blues-based solos. On the other hand, “Maat” sounds like a droning invocation, mixing strings, wordless vocals and droning horns. The jabbing horn lines of older Coleman recordings are still in evidence (“Precession”), but both the contrapuntal lines of African music and some elements of Western composition are more rich.

For those of us who had been following Coleman with some care over the years, there was a sense that what he was doing was both powerful and occasionally dull. His bands were exceptional—he was attracting both powerful contemporaries like Craig Handy and Ravi Coltrane and the sharpest young talent such as pianist Vijay Iyer. (Iyer, indeed, has been quoted saying, “To me, Steve is as important as Coltrane. He has contributed an equal amount to the history of the music. He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists.”) Yet his output is also tedious, at times.

Coleman’s music is riveting but often more for your head than for your heart. As a result, he has created interesting new structures for jazz composition and improvisation, and he has seeded many interesting clouds.

I recall vividly an evening a couple of years ago in the outdoor sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It seemed like a perfect summer night for some exciting music, but Coleman and his band Five Elements came out sounding mechanical and monotone. All the jibber-jabbering horns and asymmetrical interlocking were on display, with a voice interlaced sonically with the jazz instruments. Unfortunately—on that night at least—it all sounded like an exercise, with too little passion coming to the fore, even when the great players were improvising. The impatience of the crowd was plain, and I shared it.

Coleman wasn’t connecting that night, and that has been the case in many of his recent recordings, too.

Steve Coleman’s Latest, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities
The year 2010 brings us a new recording from Five Elements on a new label, the esteemed Pi Recordings, and with a somewhat sharper sense of connection. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities was recorded in 2006 after a long residency by Coleman at New York’s The Stone, and it features a group that, today, seems like a crackling all-star group.

It’s hard to say whether my reaction (and critical reaction in general) to Semblances is increasingly positive for pure reasons or whether some of us are more receptive just because this is Coleman’s first new domestic recording in almost a decade. There is a sense that Semblances is a reemergence.

The disc punches at the listener first with “Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)”, a typical pulsing Coleman tune that is animated largely thanks to the expressive and edge-of-your-seat drumming of Tyshawn Sorey. Jen Shyu is the vocalist and her work here is the most striking that I’ve heard of hers: she seems higher in the mix than in the past, and while she doesn’t really take the lead on more than one tune, she seems sufficiently sonically distinct to bring the recording some edge.

“Beba” has the kind of circular melody that seems like it could go on forever in a dodging loop. Even Coleman’s solo has the same quality, with the line sounding partly like bebop and partly like a very symmetrical saxophonic tap-dancing. Again, Sorey brings a dancing quality to all this music, a New Orleans-y groove that serves it very well.

The more introspective tunes feel more like theory. “Clouds” gives trombonist Tim Albright some nice work, then it sets up Shyu for another wordless lead melody task, floating out over the interlacing horn lines. I have to confess that I’m not sure how I really feel about Shyu’s wordless syllables, which make her sound like she is singing a very important song in an unknown foreign tongue. What, exactly, is the point of having singing if the singer is going to be nothing more than another horn?  “060706-2319 (Middle of Water) fares better, with the range of feelings and settings for the soloing much wider.

Finally, Shyu gets some real words on “Flos Ut Rosa Floruit”, an adaptation of a choral work by a Danish composer. Coleman’s sympathies with classical composition come through there, as his techniques of arrangement not only complement the melody but also suggest a fresh middle group between jazz and purely notated music.

“Attila 04” is a straight-up blowing workout for the band, with a great solo from trumpeter Joanathan Finlayson and more smashing propulsion from Sorey. And the album ends with “Vernal Equinox”, which clear reprises the punching figure of the opening tune, bring this collection into circular cohesion.

Harvesting Conclusions and Ambiguities
My own experience of enjoying and learning from Coleman’s music over has been overwhelmingly positive. If he didn’t turn out to be the lovechild of James Brown and Charlie Parker that I first thought he was, then he ultimately turned into someone more interesting, if less fun. (If you want to get your head expanded, musically, spend a few hours at and you will see that Coleman’s art is as carefully considered as any 12-tone classical form.

As my colleague Kevin Whitehead said eloquently in his Fresh Air review of the new record, “If Steve Coleman’s music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it’s because he’s more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood. That’s okay; there’s room for all kinds of approaches.” I agree. Coleman’s music is riveting but often more for your head than for your heart. As a result, he has created interesting new structures for jazz composition and improvisation, and he has seeded many interesting clouds.

The musicians who have worked with Coleman and learned from him are among the finest in on the scene today: technical and passionate. Coleman should get some credit. If you come over to my house to take away all my Coleman CDs, I’d fight you, but not to the death. But if you came to thieve by Cassandra Wilson, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman… You get the picture.

With Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, it seems like Coleman himself raised the heat just a little bit. I’m still not sure that this music is a proper end in itself, as opposed to a brilliant means that jazz is lucky to have access to. It rarely feels cathartic or satisfying in the usual senses of those words. It doesn’t provide the enjoyments that we seek from most art.

However, Steve Coleman’s music is not “most art”. Taken on its own terms, his art is smashing.

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.

Steve Coleman and his Five Elements Band, circa 1991
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