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Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse: Morphogenesis

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

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.

RATING 8 / 10