Steve Coleman (promo photo)

Steve Coleman’s Analogies in Various Places

The music constantly shifts and moves in Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance's Synovial Joints, flexing one set of instruments against another in a creative tension.
Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance
Synovial Joints

When it was announced last year that composer, saxophonist, and musical mentor Steve Coleman would receive a MacArthur Fellowship, jazz musicians from around the word collectively said “At last!”

Not that anyone is owed a MacArthur. And not that jazz musicians — who have already learned, like other musicians, not to pay too much attention to the Grammys or other institutional affirmations — necessarily see the “genius grant” as career-making. But these grants matter, and they are serious, although certainly not based on commercial calculation. Most importantly, they were previously awarded to pianists Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and saxophonist Miguel Zenon, each of whom counts Coleman as a major influence and mentor. Giving out those grants to artists influenced by Colemen, but ignoring Coleman, was feeling a bit like Cooperstown had brought in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera before Joe DiMaggio. They were all deserving, of course, but sometimes chronology and influence matters.

The foundation described Coleman as a musician “whose technical virtuosity and engagement with musical traditions and styles from around the world are expanding the expressive and formal possibilities of spontaneous composition.” Right on. And previous awardees get it, too. “To me, Steve’s as important as Coltrane,” Iyer said in a 2010 interview. “He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists.”

The MacArthur ($625,000, paid out over five years with no reporting requirements or strings attached, for those who are counting) was announced on 17 September 2014, just before a weeklong residency for Coleman at The Stone in lower Manhattan. The Stone is a small non-profit music space founded in 2005 by its artistic director, saxophonis John Zorn — a year before he himself became a MacArthur fellow.

As it turned out, I had a visit to New York planned for precisely that time, and The Stone was already on my list of destinations. I wanted to see Coleman again, a musician I had been following Coleman since the mid-80s when he emerged as the young leader of a group of like-minded musicians who were combining jazz, funk rhythms, West African inspiration, and a densely organized kind of pan-tonality. For a time, this music (dubbed “M-Base” for “macro-basic array of spontaneous extemporization”, whatever that means) seemed like The Next Thing — as if post-bop and Bitches Brew had found a magical common ground. Like Andrew Hill and James Brown had mixed their DNA, with a magical sprinkling of killer chops.

My (Embarrassing) Secret about Steve Coleman

But here was the terrible secret I was holding inside. As happy as I was that this landmark musician had gotten a Mac grant and as curious as I was about what he was up to lately, for years I had secretly been nursing the feeling that his music had become tedious and intellectual. Or, worse, just boring. What had once been funky had started to sound formulaic to me. The whirling patterns of horns had become mere repetitions. The solos, I thought, meandered.

I’d written about Coleman a couple of times in recent years, each time trying to convince myself that his huge, sparking talent was as alive as I wanted it to be. In 2010 I wrote a whole column about him (“Steve Coleman: Saxophone Funkmaster, Musical Philosopher, Shaman, Baffler“), spurred by his first US release in a while on Pi Records, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities. I traced his history and then, reaching, tried to praise the record as a reemergence, even as I admitted that “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.”

Three years later I reviewed Functional Arrhythmias, again desperately wanting it to be a “Welcome Back” for Coleman. But at the review’s end I admitted that “perhaps the sameness of the sound on these songs wears a touch thin.”

Now, here I was, headed downtown to The Stone, happy that Coleman — an artist who had moved away from New York to rural Pennsylvania and grown more mystical and distant over time — was basking in a glowing feature on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Would I get to the tiny Stone and find it mobbed with CBS viewers? Would the international acclaim of a MacArthur make this a “must see” gig in jazz’s biggest, most vital city?

And if it did, would I end up being the only listener there who was not really hip to what Coleman was doing, despite my repeated attempts to find him exciting again?

Despite my doubts about Coleman’s continued vitality, I was crushed to discover The Stone nearly empty when I arrived just 15 minutes before showtime. Among the handful of folks already there were several musicians associated with Coleman, including his frequent collaborator, vocalist Jen Shyu. How could someone who just received a “genius grant” be playing to an empty room in New York?

And then two things happened. First, The Stone filled up in a great rush, nearly all of its folding chair were suddenly occupied and a buzz filled the room. I was sitting between several musicians, yes, others in the room were urgent fans or people who were interested in something new from a musician they had just learned about. The band — boasting a three horn front line, guitar, electric bass, drums, and percussion — casually gathered and began spinning out a set of music that was genuinely mesmerizing. It wasn’t just “interesting” but compelling and organic, original and somehow inevitable.

Was the magic of the MacArthur fooling me into finally (and truly) re-embracing Coleman? Had the music recently come into focus? Or had my ability to hear it and feel it changed for some other reason? Whatever the cause, Coleman and his band had me in the palm of their collective hand. Again.

A Brilliant Record: Synovial Joints, Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance (Pi)

The experience of that night is deepened and reaffirmed by Coleman’s new recording, which pairs his horns-plus-rhythm band with a small group of strings. The result is a riveting and joyous conversation that — and I’m writing this now with full disclosure of my prior strong reviews that were, in part, wishful thinking — is the most astonishing recording of 2015 thus far.

The dilemma on previous recent Coleman outings was the strange sameness that permeated his brilliance. Even when he was executing a flawless high-wire act, Coleman’s music could feel technical or unmoving. Synovial Joints is feeling and alive, a complex conversation that goes in many fascinating directions. The melodies are original but gripping. The improvisations are spirited and dramatic.

At the center of the record is the four-part suite that gives the record its name. Coleman writes in the notes that he has been searching for new ways to organize music, looking for analogies in various places, including the joints of the human body. I have no idea how this investigation played out in his composing, but there is certainly a sense that this music constantly shift and moves, flexing one set of instruments against another in a creative tension.

“Hand and Wrist” runs on a funky rhythm thumped out by Anthony Tidd’s bass and David Bryant’s left-hand piano. An array of written lines then emerge, counterpoint that sets trumpets in contrary motion with flute/clarinet, and vibes wound against saxophone lines. The harmonies shift in and out like a kaleidoscope of watercolors, and then the strings enter playing syncopated harmonies that push and pull against bass trombone and acoustic bass. Round and round it spins in constant variation until Coleman and his front-line mate Jonathan Finlayson take improvised solos that are set in riveting dialogue with delicate, dancing arrangements.

The four segments of “Synovial Joints” are continuous, yet each has its own character. I love the complex rhythmic counterpoint of “Torso”, as Coleman uses piccolo on a wild countermelody. One of the tricks of this music is that the instrumental groupings seem to fade into and out of the foreground, making your ears constantly find a new aural focus. Even in the unison passages by the leader and Finlayson, a different instrument seems to pop out at different times. For this work alone, the MacArthur was well-spent.

Beyond the suite, this record is just as strong and extremely varied. “Tempest” is a dramatic recitative for Coleman’s horn in various unisons as strings and woodwinds play daring colors behind him — almost like a classical composition that develops in a linear way without noticeable repetitions. Coleman sounds a bit like Ornette rather than Steve here, the melody unwinding with a natural air.

“Celtic Cells” is also striking and relaxed. Coleman plays a beautiful unison with Jen Shyu’s wordless vocal, backed by cello and percussion in a style that at first suggests folk music. Layers of harmony begin by sounding church-y, but the whole thing develops a gentle swing, too. It’s a delicate, crystalline thing. “Acupuncture Openings” has a swinging main melody, but the accompaniment jabs and rotates like Philip Glass mixed with Count Basie, and “Harmattan” has a bopping melody that swings over a burble of percussion and Miles Okazaki’s guitar.

What works so well in this music is the ideal balance of freedom and structure that can be the hallmark of great jazz. Charles Mingus exemplified this — creating musical structures that were brick-strong but also built to set improvisors into free flight above them. Coleman’s structures on Synovial Joints are hardly Mingus-like in feeling or grit, but they share that master’s genius for multi-voice complexity and rhythmic interest. Coleman’s improvisors still play with a lyric soul but in his own vocabulary. And it sings like crazy this time around.

Coleman’s Influence is Everywhere, Indeed

Where else do we hear music this shimmering and exciting? Well, honestly, it can be heard in lots of places. That’s partly because Coleman really was a mentor to musicians such as Vijay Iyer, whose bracing work also balances structure and freedom. But Coleman’s influence is more widespread, covering a wide swath of the current scene. John Hollenbeck’s new record, Songs We Like a Lot contains rotating structures and careful but daring contrapuntalism, too. Saxophonist Chris Potter’s latest, Imaginary Cities, is built around a suite of tunes and makes creative use of a small string group without resorting to any clichés. The swift unisons of Coleman/Finlayson are easy to hear in Birdcalls, the latest from Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Ultimately, we know that it makes sense that Coleman got that MacArthur later rather than sooner. Because he has been unselfish and central — a musician who has encouraged and supported others while letting his own concepts be shared, spread, and slowly cooked. But with his latest recording, it all comes together for Coleman. He’s making the most accessible, most thrilling music of his mature career. He’s in the ideal place to explode with a new creativity, built on decades of study, performance, and collaboration.

Finally, I’m hip to Steve Coleman again. Eventually, genius gathers up even the doubters.