|Steve Coleman. Photo credit: Eddy Westveet|
Ahead of Steve Coleman’s visit to Birmingham with his group the Five Elements (CBSO Centre, 22nd November), Alison Bentley writes about his significance and the background to his music:
This is a very rare opportunity to see the great, hugely influential American alto saxophonist, Steve Coleman. This Birmingham gig is the only UK date in his European tour. The music is complex, exhilarating, thought-provoking and downright funky, led by the searingly beautiful and energetic tone of Coleman’s sax. The Five Elements have been through many changes, but are currently Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Sean Rickman (drums) and British-born US resident Anthony Tidd (electric bass).
Coleman has been a part of the M-Base Collective (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations) from the start in the 80s. He’s adamant that the name describes an approach to music rather than a style. He told one interviewer that it’s ‘…not a term to define the music… I’m just trying to become more myself…My main thing is to use music to expand consciousness…give people a chance to think.’ Coleman grew up in Chicago, mentored by tenor-player Von Freeman, and listening to Charlie Parker. He was preoccupied with the inventiveness of Parker’s rhythmic phrasing- the way he grouped his notes in irregular patterns across the beat. Coleman’s own writing avoids conventional time signatures in favour of bunches of beats linked in twos and threes, which can be wonderfully jumpy. Coleman immersed himself in West African drum music too, and draws on those complex interlocking rhythms in his writing and playing- there’s a lot of funkiness in the mix.
Coleman’s compositions are mostly made up of long, rhythmic lines, using esoteric theories of harmony based on Ancient Greek and Egyptian ideas, Medieval modes, maths. He’s written for larger ensembles, and recorded with Cassandra Wilson, Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler and Ravi Coltrane, as well as hip-hoppers and rappers. In the current band, there’s less of the full-on slap-bassed sound he developed in the 90s, and a more contemplative feel- though still funky. There are spiralling lines as the sax and trumpet circle round each other, dodging and feinting like boxers- a sport Coleman has a passion for. He believes in ‘spontaneous composition’, and his bands’ improvisations are full of thrillingly unexpected moves and intervals- conversations between superb musicians attuned to each other’s musical language.
Inspiration comes from patterns in nature and the Five Elements’ 2013 album Functional Arrhythmias is inspired by the human body: ‘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.’ Coleman’s just been awarded a prestigious ‘Genius Grant’ for creativity from the MacArthur Fellowship.
‘Don’t worry about understanding it…can you feel it?’ Coleman told one interviewer. It’s music that dazzles and fascinates, and there’s a heartbeat running through- music that makes you think and is full of passion too.
LINKS:Review – Steve Coleman and Steve Williamson at the 2011 London Jazz Festival
Interview/ Review: Steve Coleman in Middelburg, Zeeland NL in 2011
Steve Coleman in John Fordham’s 50 Great Moments in Jazz