STEVE COLEMAN behevesthat
create a new music specific to their
than just follow
in the steps oftheir predecessors. which makes him something ofa rarity on the contemporary jazz scene. Kenny Mathieson hears about the
shape of things to come.
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teve Coleman would never put it quite so brazenly. but the saxophonist is engaged on a mission to redefine the way we think about jazz and funk fusion. The Chicago-born. Brooklyn-based alto saxophonist stands at the centre ofone of the few genuinely innovative attempts to take the discoveries of the 1970s in a new direction. away from the now well-worn and increasingly banal paths pioneered by Miles Davis. Weather Report (ironically. Joe Zawinul is in town the
week after Coleman. so get ready to compare and i contrast. kids) or Return To Forever.
The vehicle for this new twist is his band Five
Elements (‘it refers.‘ says Coleman. ‘to the five Ii elements oflife — Earth. Air. Fire. Water and the Void — not the number of people‘) in particular. and the informal M-Base (which stands for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporisations) grouping in general. The name ofthe game is to take the elements and I shake them up some. drawing on his twin early i allegiances to the Parkers — firstly Maceo in the : JB‘s. then Bird on records pressed on him by his jazz-fan father.
The music which emerges in the shake-up blends diverse elements into new shapes and configurations. and I choose those words carefully. M-Base is ‘basically just an attempt to create a common. modern musical language for ourselves. which comes from our lives today.‘ Coleman argues. ‘l was always involved in funk bands and things like that anyway back in Chicago. and those were the first things that I played. long before I played jazz.
That awareness of his own musical roots has steered him clear of the kind ofjazz revivalism practised by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and the massed ranks of neo-boppers on the current scene. Not that he would put them down for doing what they do. but he is quite specific about his own reasons for avoiding that route.
‘I didn't grow up on jazz. I grew up on James Brown and Motown and stuff like that. and I got
into jazz mainly because disco had become 7 popular. and I didn‘t like that music so much. sol , was looking for other things to check out. What I i am doing now is trying to play things which come from my own experience. and playing a style of ' jazz or blues from the 1940s is not part ofthat. For me. playing like Charlie Parker or Lee Morgan would be the same as playing like Louis Armstrong or King ()liver. It doesn‘t matter how far in the past it is. the point is that it is not my life. it’s their lives.
‘Music is more than just a style or a particular way of playing notes and chords. it‘s your experience as well. and I didn‘t experience any of that. I think the young guys who are playing in that style today who think they sound like that don‘t sound like that at all ~— I hear the notes and the chords. but I don't hear the life that I hear from the older guys like Tommy Flanagan or Von Freeman. or from the records of that era.‘
The key to Coleman‘s developing musical vocabulary. which uses a system of what he calls ‘cells' as building material to realise musical shapes which fall outside the more familiar construction systems provided by chords or scales. lies in rhythm. The saxophonist talks a lot about musical shapes (hence ‘structured extemporisations‘ —- improvisation within a structured context). a legacy of an early interest in art which leads him to ‘see things very visually in music.‘ But back to rhythm. the source.
‘For me. rhythm is the most important element in music. That‘s just my opinion. but for me rhythm is the first element that existed. You can't have melody without rhythm. but you can have rhythm without melody. Harmony definitely came later. we all know that. and some cultures don‘t even have a harmonic concept. So rhythm is the primal element for me. and the most important. The same melody sounds completely different with different rhythms. My music is primarily a rhythmic and melodic concept. and harmony is just the result ofwhat is happening with those two elements.‘
Coleman is a lucid and very intelligent musical thinker. but don‘t be put off if this all sounds a little daunting. The music which he produces is highly accessible. especially in the context of Five Elements. and the live situation is the best way to hear it. 011 record. the band can sound a little too smoothed out. especially when contrasted with his more acerbic jazz work with Dave Holland. or the fiery M-Base collaboration on Strata Institute‘s killer ('ipher .S'ynuix. On stage. the boundaries get rolled back. and the shake-Up really flows.
What. though. should we call it‘.’ Well. Steve Coleman has an easy answer to that. 'I don't think in terms ofcategories. because if you say to me the music Charlie Parker played. that is completely self-explanatory. but if you say Bebop then you might have anything on your mind I don‘t know what you think Bebop is! Charlie Parker didn‘t learn music by listening to Bebop. He was a creator who came out of the same type ofstyles as Lester Young and (‘hu Berry and those guys were playing. and extended that creatively into another area which had to do with his life and who he was. That is exactly what we are trying to do in M-Base today.‘
There it is. then — go catch the music Steve Coleman plays.
Steve ( 'olemun and Five Elements are a! The Queen '5‘ Hall in Edinburgh on 9 Nov, and the Glasgow Royal ( 'oneert Hall on 1() Nov. Their new album. Rhythm People (The Resurrection of ( ‘reutii'e Bluek Civilisation). is out now on Noi'us.