|Steve Coleman in 2004. Photo credit: Patrícia Magalhães. Public Domain|
Steve Coleman and Reflex
(Pizza Express 3rd April 2017. Review by Alison Bentley)
It was a thrill to hear the great Chicago-born alto player Steve Coleman in the intimate atmosphere of Pizza Express, in the middle of the trio’s European tour. ‘It’s hard to overstate Steve’s influence,’ Vijay Iyer once wrote, and there were lots of young musicians in the audience hanging on Coleman’s every note.
Sean Rickman opened with delicate, almost decorative drumming. Coleman himself was almost hidden behind a pillar, but there was no mistaking that clear impassioned tone. UK-born Anthony Tidd’s electric bass sometimes echoed his phrases, sometimes held the groove (you may remember Tidd from the UK band Quite Sane). Coleman’s pulled against the harmony, high over the grungy, funky groove and resounding cowbell. Phrases in 6 then 5 flew by- Coleman likes to think not in time signatures but repeated, interlocking phrases in what he’s called a ‘stuttering movement’. The piece changed mood urgently, with lopsided rhythm – restless, urban, rarely settling. A little quote from Coltrane’s Resolution had the audience whooping.
The next piece opened pensively – Coleman was perhaps improvising riffs (he believes in ‘spontaneous composition’). It was as if he and Tidd were stalking each other in the dark; every so often their notes would collide and they’d stop for a second as if in surprise, then continue circling each other. (Coleman is a fan of boxing.) They burst into quadruple time, over the rushing sound of the rivets in Rickman’s cymbals. Coleman grew up preoccupied with the inventiveness of Charlie Parker. You could hear some of that in Coleman’s phrasing – shaped like Parker’s but as if a familiar turn of speech had been made with different sounds. Every speeding note was articulated, rushing ahead with perfect discipline. A ballad followed, Coleman playing a slow solo intro as if he had lyrics in his head. (Tidd later told me it was Crazy He Calls Me.) Tidd’s own solo bubbled as he almost strummed the strings, and Rickman drummed his fingers on snare and cymbals.
The next two pieces recalled Coleman’s 90s M-Base Collective work – angular shapes on the sax, a low grooving counterpoint on the bass and wonderfully unbalanced funk. Coleman took some phrases up to a high, emotively keening vibrato, with hints of bop phrasing and Parker’s Confirmation. Rickman’s solo sizzled under an off-beat clave on the cowbell. The last piece of the set had an impossibly groovy back beat. It built to a high tension then dropped back into Rollins’ Pent-Up House, stretching out some notes and compressing others – more of an exploded house.
The second set opened with strong swung funk, long loping lines that stopped suddenly and unexpectedly. Coleman’s solo sax started the next piece, breathy tumbling arpeggios that could have owed as much to Debussy as jazz. The boppiest groove they’d played that night developed, Rickman dropping bombs on his bass drum at unimaginable speed, trading 8s (or was it 7 1/2 s?) with the others. A strutting bass feel took over – it felt deliciously destabilising, like walking on a conveyor belt that kept changing direction.
When a high note cracked in Coleman’s intro to the next piece, he laughed as if sharing a joke with his sax. He played high sweet flights over the low grooves, sometimes locking in, sometimes pulling away. He called out what sounded like African chants, full-voiced over Tidd’s still presence and Rickman’s shifting, nervy rhythms. The next piece sped up and slowed down, as if the sax was trying to paint on a moving canvas. The wild thrashing drums cooled down into the chords to I Got Rhythm, Coleman’s harmony pulling almost to breaking point. Long, meandering but taut lines were broken by Coleman’s rhythmic vocal sounds (a reminder of his work with rappers on Metrics, for example). The encore was a brilliantly arrthymic variation on Alfie’s Theme.
It was inspiring to hear Coleman at 60 still developing his own language of improvisation, with its spiky yet fluid intervals, and expressive sound. As Coleman once said: ‘Don’t worry about understanding it – just by repeated exposure, can you feel it?’ The audience’s cheers said it all.