Steve Coleman: Saxophone Funkmaster, Musical Philosopher, Shaman, Baffler

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.

Artist: Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Album: Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Label: Pi

US Release Date: 2010-06-08

UK Release Date: 2010-06-07

Image: 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.

Theory & Disconnect

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.

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