Heartiest congratulations to the visionary alto saxophonist-composer-conceptualist Steve Coleman on his 2014 MacArthur Award. Here’s a feature piece that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2011.
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Around 5:30 on the final day of spring, nineteen hours before the summer solstice, Steve Coleman sat in his Prius, parked a few steps from the Jazz Gallery, where he’d soon conduct the penultimate installment of his seventh season of Monday night master classes at the venue. Dressed down in a red t-shirt with “Ancient Waves” logo across the chest, baseball cap worn backward, baggy jeans, and hightops, he was relaxed and focused after a 90-mile drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania, his home since 1992. Rather than adjourn to a restaurant for a sitdown conversation, Coleman, a road warrior par excellence (his itinerary over the past two decades includes lengthy fieldwork sabbaticals in Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, South India, and Indonesia), decided to stay put, taking advantage of the unmetered space.
Later that evening, and at the two other Coleman workshops I attended in June, attendance was decent. Still, it seemed odd that more aspirants didn’t shell out $15 for a hands-on encounter with the figure who, as Vijay Iyer says, “of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, has done the most work, and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity, of output and impact.”
It is Coleman’s signal achievement to have dissected rhythmic, tuning, and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrated them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experience and cultural roots. Operating via the ritualistic practices that contextualized these sounds in their original iteration, he frames his own sere alto saxophone voice within a matrix of interlocking, layered beat cycles, sometimes whirling, sometimes stately, sustaining continuity with a self-devised harmonic logic.
He’s been remarkably effective at communicating his principles. During the ‘80s Coleman imparted fresh ideas about working with pulse and uneven meters to such experimentally oriented, like-minded, Brooklyn-based contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the loosely grouped collective known as M-BASE, an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations. In the latter ‘90s, Osby, who referenced Coleman in a piece called “Concepticus,” described him as “my main motivator,” adding, “if I ever reach an impasse, he’ll say something that will transport me to another area.” A few years ago, Wilson was similarly praiseful. “Steve told me that if I could hold my own in his context, I’d have something else to bring to standards,” she said. “He was right. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, you develop an elasticity when you work with 4/4, because you’re always certain about your time.”
It would be inaccurate to describe Coleman as a “guru-Grand Poobah” figure for his M-BASE collaborators, many of them major forces on the timeline. But the term fits when assessing his impact on consequential post-Boomers like Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, who have drawn upon Coleman’s subsequent investigations—documented over the past quarter century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies—in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities. “This idea of conceptually dealing with stuff from a different culture and from the roots of one’s culture was an amazing template,” Mahanthappa said recently. “It seemed like the real deal. It was modern American improvised music.”
Anyone with an Internet connection can find interviews and essays in which Coleman postulates and analyzes his intellectual first principles, which are as complex and audacious as the raw materials he works with. He believes strongly that music symbolically represents universal truths and, therefore, human experience on the most fundamental level. Freedom emerges via contingent pathways—rigorously elaborated structures that he actualizes with non-traditional notation—through which creative expression manifests. Numerological I-Ching trigrams denote rhythmic values, each part cycled in thick harmonic layers among the various horns, or, as Marcus Gilmore notes, within the trapset itself, “intertwining and interweaving until they meet up at some point.” A chart representing lunar or solar phases might involve pitch values and voice leading. Another, mapping a celestial moment, can gestate an entire composition, as in “060706-2319 (Middle Of Water)” and “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation) on the 2010 release Harvesting Semblances and Affinities [Pi] and “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” on this year’s follow-up, The Mancy of Sound. Patterns of dots on the cover of the latter document symbolize the Yoruba philosophical and divination system called Ifá; transcribed, they comprise the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic form of a four-piece suite.
With this backdrop in mind, I asked Coleman whether proximity to the solstice would impact the evening’s proceedings. “In an intangible way, it does all the time,” he responded. “I believe there’s a specific energy happening at any moment, in any place, and that we have the ability to tap that energy consciously.” He mentioned core influences—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Danish composer Per Nørgård—whose musical production incorporates such metaphysics. “Each person has to figure out their relationship to it. A lot of people who think about these things won’t talk about them publicly. My view is that we’re in a new kind of information age, and there’s less need to be secretive.”
Coleman reached into his bag behind him, and pulled out a book entitled The Unified Cycle Theory by Steven J. Puetz. “I spend a lot of time studying cyclical thought,” he continued. “I’m always paying attention to eclipses and equinoxes, symmetrical nodes where energy intersects. I was well aware of the event tomorrow, or any time we get near these points. Then I focus to see if I can pick up something that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Am I deluding myself or imagining things? You could say that about almost anything that you do. Definitely, if you’re tuned into it, you can feel something special that doesn’t happen in other moments. After a while, you start noticing patterns and start trying to see how you can use these things, how they can work out, what the differences are.”
On the two recent CDs, Coleman seems to be consolidating, loosening forms, transmuting cross-cultural correspondences gleaned from his travels into musical shapes and inserting them into an increasingly epic narrative. Tyshawn Sorey, who plays drumset on both recordings—by himself on Harvesting and in tandem with Gilmore on Mancy—pinpointed the interweaving quality to which Gilmore referred when describing the evolution in Coleman’s rhythmic language from his “much more sonically dense” music of the ‘90s. Sorey traced the transition to the composition “Ascending Numeration,” from the 2002 recording The Ascension To Light, on which “it takes at least a minute” for all the different meters—he calls them “time spans”—to align. “The structures are much more elaborate now,” Sorey said. “The music breathes more. Vibrationally it feels different. I remember thinking in the ‘90s that the music was cold, that it was hyper-technical but lacked emotional content. I played some of that music when I first joined the group. In the music he’s written since then, there’s a lot going on, but it hits you emotionally in some way.”
Recorded in 2006 and 2007, the Pi sessions represent an early stage of this development. But over the past year or so, Coleman said, he’s been “reshuffling,” addressing “pre-composed material ever more spontaneously, using compositions almost like cells of information and recombining them in different ways,” trying to give his musicians “greater responsibility for their part.” Towards this end, he toured Europe last fall and this spring with no drums or bass, presenting consequential challenges for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist David Bryant, and vocalist Jen Shyu.
“The music was written with bass and drums in mind,” said Shyu, a Coleman regular since 2003. “It’s not that hard to play each single part, and it’s difficult but achievable to be able to clap one part and sing another. The hardest thing is to improvise and be free over that, and not be locked into, ‘ok, I have to keep my place with this line.’ Steve wants you to hear it as a gestalt—all the parts together, internalizing how they fit, and never lose your place. The compositions are getting more difficult. They’re based on extra-musical things, I think a cycle of Mercury, so the progressions are unusual and harder to hear.”
Coleman described the effect of this drummerless experiment as akin to a colonic. “There was stuff encrusted inside me for years, and when that layer was stripped away, things became crystal clear,” he said. The logical next step, he continued, is to “jettison” the precomposed fragments and move towards “creating spontaneous forms on the spot for the first time.” He added: “It’s not like free improvisation, where whatever sound you make and whatever sound I make, it’s cool. It’s having an intelligent conversation with somebody on the street where you don’t know what you’re going to say, but it makes linguistic sense. It has to be as sophisticated as something you might create if you composed it with pencil and paper, and you have to be able to retain it so that you can repeat it, not verbatim, but as you would a written compositional form. I never write out set lists. We come out, and I blank out my mind and feel what’s coming from the audience and what’s happening on stage. From that comes my first impulse, and I make a sound. Then I start developing and weave a thread.
“The temporal moment has a character, and it imposes on us a certain vibe which we then deal with. Place has something to do with it. The land has an energy that affects us. When I’m in central Java for three months, I create different shit than I would if I stayed here. I get different ideas in south India or Brazil. Usually the effect on you is unconscious. I study all this esoteric stuff to try to figure out what it is. Almost everything I do starts with some vague interior, intuitive, spiritual feeling, which I then try to figure out how to technically work with. In the end, I’m dealing with a craft. I’m dealing with music, and something’s got to be developed out of that music.”
Coleman traces this predisposition to investigate inchoate feelings to childhood. He grew up at 68th and Cregier on Chicago’s South Side, four blocks east of Stony Island Avenue, where the Blackstone Rangers gang dominated street life. “They were recruiting cats my age, but I didn’t want to run with that kind of element,” he says. “They preyed on people with maybe weaker minds. I was the kind of kid that if a cat called me a chicken, I’d be like, ‘well, that’s your opinion.’ I wouldn’t get mad, just indifferent. Before he died, my father told me, ‘What you’re doing musically and the way you are, I saw it in you early. You were a hard-headed baby who wanted to go your own way, and could sit in the corner by yourself and play your own game for hours.’”
Initially attracted to Charlie Parker through his father’s record collection, Coleman received subsequent hands-on mentoring from Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, and Bunky Green, all regular presences in neighborhood clubs like the Apartment Lounge and Cadillac Bob’s. He traced the origin of his rhythmic explorations to a realization that the quality he most appreciated in Bird and his teachers was “their identity, a strong vibe that told you this was their thing,” and that “the primary ingredient in that strong identity was the rhythm.”
“The main element of their rhythmic base stemmed from the dance music of the time, and I realized that I’d have to look for something different,” he said. “I started to think about Motown, James Brown, the Meters—which I heard as a folk music—and how to do something more sophisticated with it. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. I feel soul and funk more than what Charlie Parker and Max Roach and those cats did, because it’s what I grew up on. In blues, you have the sophisticated line, the less sophisticated line, and the stuff in the middle, a breadth of feelings, everything from Ma Rainey to Coltrane and in between. I didn’t feel that breadth existed with this music. I thought it could be wide-open. I felt you could take it as far as what Trane was doing with ‘Expression’ and ‘Transition,’ and I was determined to do it.”
Once settled in New York, Coleman—who took gigs with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, with drummer Doug Hammond, and with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan ensemble, and often played on the street with cornetist Graham Haynes—heard recordings of tribal, rural folk music from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. “I was shocked, because in the singing and drumming I heard rhythms that I heard in Charlie Parker,” he said. He absorbed their phrasing of the rhythms, “the sensibility they did it with and the looseness with which they expressed it. Graham and I were trying to work our way into feeling these things, like groping in the dark. You hear back a piece on tape and keep what works, and expand on it.” He cited a eureka moment—“Armageddon” from the 1990 recording Rhythm People, on which Reggie Washington played bass and Smitty Smith played drums. “I had a dream about how the music was going to sound, and something on the bridge of that song was the closest it got. I began to analyze that and go deeper. When I went to Ghana, I saw similarities between what they were doing and what I was doing (and differences, too), and realized that what really attracted me was the cyclic element.”
As the ‘80s progressed (he described the decade as “complete experimentation”), Coleman needed every bit of bullheaded resolve to stay on course and withstand the slings and arrows—some were self-inflected—hurled his way. “Von Freeman warned me that if I was going to go the route of developing my own music, it would take me twice as long,” he said. “I could easily have been one of the Young Lion crowd. All I had to do was play the game and put on a three-piece suit. Instead, I was in this underground direction, wearing overalls. Stanley Crouch called me ‘the Jim Jones of Brooklyn’—leading everybody to their musical suicide. That was a good one; if you’re going to signify, you might as well be clever.” Nor was approbation unanimous within the M-BASE community. “I was aggressive in pursuing ideas, let’s put it that way. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. My response was always, ‘Hey, nobody’s got to follow me; I’m not starting no school.’
“Fortunately, I talked to cats like Max Roach, and played with cats like Thad, who had no idea what I was trying to do, but told me, ‘you have to find your own way, whatever it is.’ Von and Bunky told me the same thing. When things got hard, I’d remind myself that Charlie Parker hoboed on a train. Motherfuckers couldn’t come through the same door or drink from the same fountain. They were on drugs. Coltrane took a deluge of negative criticism. What am I bitching about? I was like, ‘You did what you wanted to do; you didn’t let anybody alter your thing.’”
It was now 17 hours before the Solstice, time to leave the air-conditioned Prius, enter the Gallery, order takeout Thai, and prepare for the evening’s business. “You’ve got to eat healthy, and stay in shape,” Coleman said. He recalled the classic cover of Von Freeman’s 1972 debut LP, Have No Fear, on which the tenor master, then 50, stands in a Chicago back alley in a sleeveless tee. “In ‘79, I saw Von pick up some cat and shove him through the door with one arm. I was kind of scrawny as a kid. I thought, ‘Ok, you need to take care of yourself.’ You want to be able to still move around. If you like young girls and all that, too, then you really have to do it. If anything kills me, it will be that—or an accident.”