Steve Coleman: Stories along the Path

Troy Collins

Steve Coleman                                                                                                  ©2013 Patrícia Magalhães

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman has been at the forefront of advances in jazz composition and improvisation for three decades. As the principle founder of the M-Base movement, Coleman’s aesthetic purview encapsulates a multitude of traditions with deep roots in the African Diaspora. His intricate fusion of syncopated rhythms and polyphonic harmonies has provided a vibrant, forward-thinking alternative to staid conventions, inspiring contemporaries like Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson, as well as younger artists including Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Functional Arrhythmias is Coleman’s third release for Pi Recordings since 2010, signifying a welcomed return to a domestic label; Coleman’s earlier output around the turn of the millennium was issued by the French imprint Label Bleu, but those efforts were not nearly as well received or widely available as his Novus/RCA albums of the 1990s. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi, 2010) and The Mancy of Sound (Pi, 2011) reestablished Coleman’s influence on an entire generation of jazz musicians, which has been eloquently stated by Iyer: “It’s hard to overstate Steve’s influence. He’s affected more than one generation, as much as anyone since John Coltrane.”

Coleman’s current studio recording with his flagship ensemble, Five Elements, departs from the massed sonorities, multi-layered horns and multiple percussionists of the previous Pi sessions in favor of a pared-down, economical approach. Coleman reenlisted two veterans for this date: electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, who first played with the leader over 15 years ago. Coleman shares the frontline with acclaimed trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, a Five Elements member since 2000, while guitarist Miles Okazaki appears on a third of the cuts.

The album title, Functional Arrhythmias, refers to the irregular rhythms occasionally found in otherwise healthy human heartbeats. Coleman’s abiding interest in time-related themes and patterns found in nature continues to manifest in fascinating ways, using the rhythmic interactions between the body’s biological systems (circulatory, nervous, respiratory, etc.) as the metaphorical basis for his highly distinctive musical language.

Bolstered by Tidd and Rickman’s sinewy but nimble latticework of shifting tempos and modulating time signatures, Coleman and Finlayson spin oblique polyphonic melodies into intricate contrapuntal harmonies, yielding tautly coordinated frameworks for exploration. From the spacious balladry of “Chemical Intuition” and “Respiratory Flow” to the manic drive of “Cardiovascular” and “Snap-Sis,” Coleman and company collectively imbue these labyrinthine compositions with a fervency that belies the work’s innate complexity.

Coleman has said of his latest endeavor: “All of the activities of the human body are connected in a miraculous fashion, like a giant musical composition that is constantly and spontaneously changing based on interactions with its environment.” Intrigued by the depths of his concept, I interviewed Coleman about the state of his art in the spring of 2013.


Troy Collins: You’ve previously disavowed “jazz” as an insufficiently limited term to describe your music. As a respected artist commonly associated with being responsible for significant advancements to the jazz continuum, can you elaborate on your reluctance towards embracing the term?

Steve Coleman: It’s simple, the term has almost no meaning, or a very different meaning for different people. This is a term that is much too broad to mean anything. Today, almost anything that involves some sort of improvisation (and many things that don’t) is called “jazz.”

In general, I don’t think in stylistic categories. Music would not exist if not for the people who create it. The music that they create comes from who they are, who their parents were, where they were born, their culture, musical training and musical experience. So I prefer to look closely at the people who create the music. It is much more useful for me to think about the music of Duke Ellington, the music of Louis Armstrong, of Charlie Parker, of John Coltrane, etc., than it is for me to think about the word jazz, which could be anything.

TC: Journalists have made attempts to draw parallels between your music and that of the “other Coleman” in the past, if only out of alliterative laziness. The stripped-down quartet format that dominates Functional Arrhythmias does seem to bear some aesthetic similarities to Ornette’s work, however. Do you have any affinity for his work to the degree that it has any influence on your own?

SC: As you say, these parallels are made out of laziness, as well as a tendency for journalists to copy what others have written, without doing original research on their own. My music has very little influence from the music of Ornette Coleman. We share the same family name (we are not directly related) and main musical instrument. So it’s convenient for writers to make that connection. Anyone who knows me can hear that there is little connection beyond the culture and shared history. Or those who can actually hear the musical content should be able to hear the difference. The biggest difference is in the forms, but I will not get into a theoretical discussion. I know what has influenced me, so it’s enough to say that Ornette’s music has had little influence on me. However, I respect Ornette tremendously. There are many musicians whose music I love who have not had a great influence on my own music. I respect Ornette for his creative stance, his life-long dedication to the creative path, his courage, his trail-blazing spirit and so many other things that I consider very important.

Functional Arrhythmias has a very different sound from Ornette’s music, with the exception of the instrumentation. I could see how a journalist could possibly draw parallels for a casual hearing of the compositions “Limbic Cry” and “Chemical Intuition,” but a more careful listening would reveal many differences. The main differences are in the forms of the compositions and more specifically, the forms of the improvisation.

My music is more directly out of the Charlie Parker-Von Freeman-John Coltrane continuum, although not in an emulative manner. The Music of Henry Threadgill is more directly out of the Ornette continuum, but again is not at all emulative of Ornette. It’s just a matter of aesthetics and approaches. I love Threadgill’s music, and some aspects of Henry’s music have influenced me. But, to my mind, it is the aspects of Henry’s music that come more from Henry himself, than from the Ornette lineage.

I will agree that this is a complex subject, because I believe that all people who are living at a given time are in someway related through the energy of that particular era, so there is no doubt that I share this with Threadgill, Ornette, Von Freeman, Sonny Rollins, etc. But I also know very well which music I am influenced by, because – well, I was there when I was influenced by it!

TC: Functional Arrhythmias is your third release on Pi Recordings, following Harvesting Semblances and Affinities and The Mancy of Sound, both of which were recorded between 2007 and 2008. Those sessions featured large groups with a vocalist (Jen Shyu) and dense rhythm sections (including bassist Thomas Morgan, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore, and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez), which is very different from this spare lineup, whose rhythm section consists solely of electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, veterans of your earlier projects. Can you explain the reason behind this change in personnel?

SC: I am always using compositional approaches (both spontaneous and preconceived) and musicians based on what I am trying to say through the music, i.e., based on the story that I’m trying to tell. This story demanded that I use a certain type of musician, and Sean and Anthony worked well for that purpose. When I did Harvesting and Mancy, that larger ensemble was best for those ideas, because of the number of voices (i.e., instruments) needed and the different abilities of the musicians.

I have worked in every situation from solo, to duo, trio, quartet, quintet ... all the way to very large ensembles. I’m playing the Newport Jazz Festival this year with three different configurations, sax-piano duo, Five Elements (quartet format) and saxophone with a 10-12 piece ensemble mostly composed of members of the Talea Ensemble. I’ve also presented compositions for saxophone and orchestra, where the only musician with the ability to spontaneously compose was myself. So I’ve done things with all sorts of ensemble sizes and instrumentation.

TC: Guitarist Miles Okazaki contributes some interesting tone colors and textures to the date (especially on “Cardiovascular” and “Adrenal, Got Ghost”), yet he only appears on five of the album’s 14 tracks. Was this a conscious effort on your part to vary the instrumental dynamic or more of a scheduling issue?

SC: Originally Miles was not even going to be on the recording. Including guitar on some tracks was a last minute addition. I’ve worked with Miles before, so it was not really a big deal. There is only one track where the guitar was essential for the sound, and that is “Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes).”

TC: Much of your recent work is based on patterns found in nature, such as lunar phases or shifting cloud movements, yet Functional Arrhythmias is specifically inspired by various rhythms generated inside the human body. While transposing these internal rhythms into music, did you find many similarities between biological rhythms and more abstract, elemental forces?

SC: Functional Arrhythmias is still following the Nature theme, as humans are as much from Nature as the Moon, clouds, etc. I don’t think of the non-human Nature forces as being more abstract or elemental than humans, I think of all these as coming from the same source. In other words, in some way, I feel that all of Nature is living. One of the connections for me is movement. As far as I can tell, all things move.

The one advantage of working on concepts dealing with the human body is the fact that I am human, so I can look inside of myself for many of the answers I seek. I do this all the time anyway, but when I am the actual subject, I look at myself from a slightly different perspective.

In short, Functional Arrhythmias is, as every other effort is, a direct extension of what I was working on before. It’s like my entire musical life is one big path or project, and the concerts and recordings that people hear are just snapshots along that path.

TC: You thank Milford Graves in the liner notes as an inspiration behind the album’s underlying concept. Can you elaborate on what you learned from Mr. Graves and how you have adapted those lessons to your own music?

SC: This is a difficult question to answer. I did my best synopsis in the notes for the CD. Milford is deeply involved in research dealing with many things, chief among them is the relationship between music and the human body.

However, again I want to stress that I did not copy or adopt Milford’s methods, and he may not even approve of what I did on Functional Arrhythmias (he’s made no comment about it so far). I’m cool with this. Of the musicians that I have known directly, Milford Graves remains a transformative figure in my life, along with Von Freeman, Thad Jones, Sam Rivers and Doug Hammond, but I am not trying to emulate any of these people. I would love their approval of what I create, but it’s not absolutely essential for me to continue doing whatever I’m doing.

I was probably heading in this direction anyway, which is the reason why I reached out to Milford in the first place (I had been trying to contact Milford for some time), but there is no substitute for the details that Milford provided, and continues to provide. I am learning a great deal from him, but it is way too much to talk about in an interview. Some of it is very technical information, some of it is inspirational, and in the end these all come together. But I can only put these ideas together in my own way, and my approach is very different than what Milford would do. It’s very difficult for me to describe an entire approach in words, but the best way I can briefly say it is that I look for moving sonic shapes that represent in symbolic form the principles that I am trying to reveal in the musical story. Milford’s influence was on the subject of the specific story that I was trying to tell, and in an elemental way he influenced the shapes and the way they moved, although I had already done things related to these shapes, but not so much the subject of the story. The main subject is the brain-heart connection, and how they work together with the other systems of the body.

TC: Despite the smaller lineup, the new album continues to convey a mesmerizing combination of hypnotic cross-rhythms and polyphonic counterpoint. What changes in your writing and directing a band when the size of the group can vary so dramatically?

SC: This CD was entirely spontaneously composed. Although I have used this method many times before, I am leaning more decidedly in this direction in recent years. The writing is mostly a transcription process, transcribing the spontaneously composed melodies (by melodies I mean rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc.), and I always visualize the instrumentation when I am doing the composing and the arranging (or orchestration). There is not a lot that changes based on the size of the group, except that there is less repetition of parts with a smaller group.

TC: What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance and does that affect your playing in either situation?

SC: I try as much as possible to play in the studio as we would perform live. But there is an element of sculpting that can be done in the studio that cannot be done live. What I mean is that in the studio, the music can be shaped more, through editing and mixing, and this cannot be done live. But the performance aspect of both situations is the same to me. We almost never edit solos or things like that, but we will do several takes of things in the studio, and then choose one take over another. Of course, we cannot do this in live performances, and we play live much more than we record, so we have more chances to do different versions live.

TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

SC: It is what it is, I don’t have much control over this, so I don’t think about it much. The recording industry is mainly driven by commercial concerns, and what happens in the technology area, relating to music close to what I am doing, is the result of what trickles down from the pop music world. I concern myself with the musical content, not the medium on which the music is being presented. My main concern is live music, and recordings are just a product of the technology of the era that we live in. I simply keep adapting to whatever technology pops up, I use what I can use and ignore the rest, that’s my approach.

TC: Considering your experiences programming computers and serving as the primary figure associated with a musical and philosophical movement, do you find inspiration in any new technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?

SC: Not much, except to the extent that I find inspiration in the ideas of people, and some of those ideas are expressed as technological advances. I pretty much ignore stylistic movements, fads, trends, etc., I ignore styles in general. However, I do look very carefully at the work of other individuals.

Programming for me is just another kind of laboratory to try and realize ideas, to see what the potential of different combinations are, but my main goal is normally to perform music with people, not with machines. When I do some kind of a performance with computers, it’s mainly as a demonstration, or to do something with computers that is not practical to realize with people. But I value the human ability too much to just perform only with machines. You never know what you are going to end up with when you perform with other people, and for me this is part of the attraction.

© 2013 Troy Collins

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