Music

Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse: Morphogenesis

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

The MacArthur winner and deeply influential jazz composer and saxophonist makes one of finest recordings -- and one without a drum kit.


Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse

Morphogenesis

Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2017-06-23
UK Release Date: 2016-06-23

The new recording from composer and saxophonist Steve Coleman, Morphogenesis (the beginning of form), was modeled on physical movements from boxing. It captures a set of musical rotations, sudden bends or flexes in rhythm, circular approaches, and backpedals against the groove, and Coleman fans will note that it seems related to 2015’s Synovial Joints, which used the flexing of joints in the human body as a metaphoric starting line.

You can hear these connections if you like, and the music on Morphogenesis suggests boxing at least as much as Miles Davis’s jabbing, hooking approach to trumpet improvisation suggested his interest in the sport 50 years ago. But listeners are pardoned if they hear in Coleman’s creation a great deal more than the sweet science.

This music -- full of astonishing colors, pulses, and melodies -- also suggests a dance. I often hear partners in the music, moving back and forth in a coordinated duet or trio. For example, the lengthy “Morphing” begins by setting up contrasting motion amidst at least three partners: Coleman and Maria Grand on saxophones with Matt Mitchell’s piano in unison, the insistent bass notes of Greg Chudzik, and a counter-melody from violinist Kristin Lee, vocalist Jen Shyu, and Rane Moore’s clarinet. The swirl that we hear in the opening section is choreography, not the puzzle that Coleman’s music has sometimes suggested to wary listeners. As improvising soloists jump into the fray, there is another metaphor of physical movement that suggests itself: double Dutch jump rope. As Coleman or Mitchell or trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson begin to play, they must weave their imagination around the contrary motion and interlocking rhythms of at least two different composed lines.

The music, which is undeniably complex, is also as decidedly gorgeous as a kaleidoscope and as logical as trigonometry. (Yes, plenty of metaphors might get the job done here.)

This rich tapestry is extraordinary and certainly impossible to sum up in a review. It is among the best recitals of Coleman’s long and varied career. And it is great precisely because it is, itself, so varied.

“Dancing and Jabbing” is as much a waltz as it is combat -- though you won’t find a simple “one-two-three” as its pulse. Flowing lines of melody swirl and spin around each other with astonishing grace. Coleman writes natural, largely tonal (that is: pretty to the ear) melodies that take advantage of the beautiful tone that every musician here creates. Finlayson’s sound is butter as much as brass, Moore’s clarinet is water moving ably over a riverbed, and Shyu and Lee can blend or contrast at will. While I understand the vision of arms “jabbing” out and back, I think you will find this composition too fluid to be anything martial.

A more “jabbing” performance can be found on “Horda”. It is notable that the most overtly percussive instrument on most of this recording is the piano of Matt Mitchell. “Horda” adds hand percussion from Neeraj Mehta, but the real sense of percussive attack comes from the composition itself -- the bursts from the horns, Mitchell’s staccato right hand, and the funky punch of the bass. Sections of the tune are usually punctuated by a flowing bop line that tumbles downward and hits the ground for another set of jabs and rhythmic spikes.

The sense of contrapuntal conversation is strong on “Inside Game”, where Mitchell’s piano sets up a modernist kind of “oom-pah” accompaniment that is in dialog with different sections of the ensemble. Here again, the absence of a musician behind a drum kit means that the rest of the ensemble must create the groove. Coleman, Finlayson, and Mitchell all solo in intriguing ways, letting their lines run into and with the written lines at times but also forging new paths across the tune’s landscape.

There’s a good dose of blues in Morphogenesis, but it is usually blended with practices from other traditions in a way that lessens its obviousness. “Roll Under and Angles” has a main theme and a set of improvisations that suggest a minor blues, for example. It opens with alto sax, piano, and bass playing what almost seems like... well, jazz. Soon enough, though Coleman brings in the other elements that are equally important to his music: notated countermelody and arrangement, competing rhythmic patterns that turn “time signature” into something relative, and a blend of European classical practices and African music patterns that are now so uniquely integrated into Coleman’s personal style that “European” and “African” aren’t very good descriptors any more.

For fans who loved Coleman’s earlier work, there is at least one track here that has that jagged-jazz funk feeling, despite the absence of drums. “Pull Counter” has a stop-start melody that is catchy and bouncing, sitting atop an often grooving rhythm section in Mitchell and Chudzik. When violin and voice join up with the horns, there is a hint of a big band arrangement, and then Coleman takes off for a solo with Mitchell “comping” behind him as the other instruments punctuate. Mitchell’s solo sounds more abstract, but it’s a great contrast. “Pull Counter” is a (near-swinging) gem.

At the opposite end, stylistically, is “NOH”, which works in the mysterious zone of “new music”, a textural exploration in which improvisation and written elements mingle freely. This tune, however, is as much a departure as any here in that it dispenses with Coleman’s more standard wheel-within-a-wheel structure. A brilliant version of that style can be found in “SPAN”, which presents a syncopated saxophone part that is altered as the piano and bass pick up the original pattern, all while a (wordless) vocal melody occupies a middle ground.

The remarkable strength of Steve Coleman’s recent work is that he has found a way to make his music more complex, more diverse, and more appealing all at once. Even without a drummer, the music on Morphogenesis can swing (“Horda”); even without a clear tonal center, it can be sultry and slinky (“Shoulder Roll”); even without being any kind of standard “jazz”, it is wealthy with intelligent, concise improvisors.

This latest chapter demonstrates again that Coleman’s ideas and execution remain on the rise. His supporting cast is, increasingly, as mature a player and composer as he is -- that Mitchell, Shyu, and Finlayson continue to appear with him demonstrates his stature in New York and in the music. For the foreseeable future, Steve Coleman will remain one of the most important American musicians. Stay tuned.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.