Harvesting Steve Coleman

Steve ColemanHarvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi, 2010)

I’ve heard Steve Coleman’s music before, but this is the first time I’ve been aware of a trombone in the mix. Trombone isn’t the first instrument I’d associate with Coleman’s intricate clockwork funk. It’s so rounded, so un-agile.

It’s the opposite of the Henry Threadgill case. Something about Threadgill’s cellular composing seems perfect for tuba, but Coleman’s music seems a strange fit for trombone.

Coleman does have his big-band moments — that is, pieces that draw directly from traditional formats, pairing a group of horns with funky electric bass and drums. The trombone naturally fits that environment. But my first impressions of Coleman from the ’90s still stick with me: interlocked meters; calculated funk from the electric bass; small and twisted chords from piano and/or a springy “very late ’80s” electric guitar. There’s an attractive coldness there that the warm, rounded trombone sound wouldn’t seem to fit.

Or would it? I’m listening to “Day Two” on Coleman’s album Genesis (available for free download), where I think the trombone is played by Tim Albright. For long passages of this track, two or three horns blare madly over a rhythm section of electric bass, drums (a cowbell adding some of that “clockwork” Coleman touch) and keys. The free-flying trombone adds just the right colors, not to mention some agile dancing. Here’s a clip; listen for the moment where the trumpeter follows Albright’s lead.

So, the trombone is no stranger to a Steve Coleman band. But on Harvesting, Coleman drops the chord instruments and builds a band around individual horns and a vocalist. The elements that helped make Genesis familiar to be are gone.

I should be clear that this is a new exercise for me, not for Albright, who’s been in Coleman’s band for some time (I’m guessing he’s on some of Coleman’s Label Bleu CDs of recent years, and I’ll admit I’ve missed some of those). And I do like the way the trombone fits into Harvesting as part of an overall warmer sound. There’s still bass on the album, but it’s acoustic, not popping funky electric, and I have to admit I miss the piano. The horns are simultaneously soloing and weaving a background. You wouldn’t expect a title like “060706-2319 (Middle of Water)” to convey warmth, but there it is, with the trombone contributing quite a bit to that mood.

That warmth also means there’s less of the compellingly icy feel of albums like Black Science. “Beba” has some of the same properties, but again: with acoustic bass, no piano, and a trombone shadowing the scatty vocal line, the sound is more organic, less sci-fi. One constant, at a macro level, is Coleman’s sax, still cutting lines that are at once swingy, analytic, cerebral, and dancing.

Albright delivers a nice sputtering solo on “Atilla 02 (Dawning Ritual)” … and then along comes “Clouds,” a slower track whose determined intro is led by the trombone, as if Coleman had inserted that track just to mock my doubts about the instrument. The writing on “Clouds” — pleasant and floating, yet with a stern chord change or two — is a good fit for the trombone’s quilty brashness.

I already knew Coleman’s music could take shapes that I hadn’t considered — the hovering, darkly angelic vocals of Lucidarium come to mind. And considering music is his art, I shouldn’t be surprised if he tries new directions with it. But while vocals have always been a part of Coleman’s presentation, trombone hasn’t, and that minor surprise led me to listen to the music from an angle I wouldn’t have considered — one that’s possibly too close but that nonetheless offers a point of view I hadn’t considered.