Coleman Refines New Work at Village Vanguard


Steve Coleman is developing material for a forthcoming live album.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Hard as it is to put a label on saxophonist Steve Coleman—an established innovator with a MacArthur “Genius” grant, Doris Duke Performing Artist award and Guggenheim fellowship to his name—it’s even harder to codify his system of musical expression, M-Base. The term is an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization, and like Augustine’s and Spinoza’s description of the divine, it’s a philosophy best approached through the negative.

Here’s what M-Base isn’t: It is not a style of jazz, nor is it a collective of card-carrying individuals (though its loose assembly of practitioners has included pianist Geri Allen, saxophonist Greg Osby and vocalist Cassandra Wilson). It is not an offshoot of free-jazz, either. And while a frequent element is Afrofuturist funk, it does not ascribe to that genre any more than it does to swing or bop.

One general understanding of M-Base is that it is less a practice than an approach; it is a way for artists and audiences to think about music. Central to this approach is the question of how musicians translate what they feel into sound, and how that translation can be made universally accessible.

As Coleman states on his website: “The main goal is to creatively express our experiences as they are today and to try and build common creative musical languages in order to do this on some kind of large collective level.”

Yet another step toward building that lingua franca was taken May 17 at the Village Vanguard, where Coleman and his band Five Elements—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman—were holding down a six-night residency ahead of a planned live recording later this year.

Much of the concert was dedicated to developing material for that upcoming album, and the evening had the feeling of a clay figure slowly coming into form on a potter’s wheel. At times, Coleman could be heard calling audibles from his place on the bandstand, announcing key centers as the band wandered into atonality, or gesturing firmly at the downbeat in an effort to goad a wayward rhythm back into place. Growth, innovation, creativity—it’s a messy business, indeed, yet it is exciting for fans to witness this type of evolution.

The miscues didn’t diminish the quality of the music, which on this night ranged primarily between frenetic Cubist funk and hyper-charged Afro-Latin grooves. Whatever the mode, the music was anything but static. An early piece had Coleman spinning fierce, wriggling lines against Rickman’s propulsive drums. To this mighty gust of music, the other members of Five Elements would add a two-note affirmative—an “amen” to Coleman’s impassioned testimony.

From this foundation, motivic tangents would emerge, and just as soon as the band seemed to generate enough gravity to form a solid body of mass, a soloist would pull from the pack; then, from that single rogue element, the song would dissolve back into swirling energy.

And yet the music still grooved, though “groove,” in this application, was better felt than heard. Numerous songs seemed to approach the comfortable pocket of common time, but upon further scrutiny, would reveal traces of disunity—hiccupping rhythms, elongated phrases, clipped beats.

This is one of M-Base’s foundational strategies—Western concepts of time signatures “largely do not exist,” Coleman has said—and it has a pleasantly unsettling effect on the listener. The churning irregularity creates a kind of rhythm that is more biological than musical, replicating heartbeats or cycles of breath. They’re patterns of nature, not mathematics.

The natural world is a major inspiration for Coleman, whose 2015 album, Synovial Joints (Pi), was lauded in the pages of DownBeat for its deep and intuitive probing of the rhythms of the human body. The saxophonist will revisit the theme of physical sensation on another upcoming album, Morphogenesis (Pi), which seeks to interpret the kinetic gestures of boxing. The project, which will be released June 23, features Coleman’s group Natal Eclipse, a drummerless ensemble that augments a trumpet-saxophone frontline with strings, vocals and auxiliary percussion. Singer Jen Shyu, pianist Matt Mitchell and violinist Kristin Lee are among the group’s members.

“When people hear my music, they are listening to a musical expression of how I view the world,” writes Coleman. One could call M-Base the personal lens through which Coleman uses music to comprehend his own sensations of the physical and spiritual worlds. It’s how he can narrow the distance between physiology and sound, between boxing and jazz. M-Base is the bridge.

As a real-life illustration of that point, the set’s final song featured a pulsing chromatic bass line that hovered around the downbeat, without ever quite settling in. Its every iteration felt as though it were plucked out of thin air at just the right time. It was an inconstancy that was accessible and profound, synching with something deep within the gut. Like Coleman’s internal rhythms made manifest, it felt profoundly personal. DB

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