Steve Coleman, Dancing and Jabbing

Steve Coleman’s Natal EclipseMorphogenesis (Pi Recordings, 2017)


Morphogenesis has a smoothness to it, a rolling and easygoing feel compared with the deliciously choppy geometry of other Steve Coleman albums. Maybe it’s as simple as the lack of a drum kit. Maybe it’s something in the harmonies, where I find myself drawing parallels to big band swing.

I like to think the album’s mood comes from Coleman’s new compositional approach, “where the initial compositional forms are derived from musical figures created sponaneously while visualizing the themes, motions, or concepts that I would like to communicate.” From there, Coleman adds layers and layers to build a piece.

He’s been working on this for five years, so it’s possible some of those results appear on Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings, 2015). What might make Morphogenesis different, aside from the makeup of the band, is that five of its nine tracks were based on boxing moves, with an eye toward the sweet science’s balletic side. A song with the name “Dancing and Jabbing” turns out to be a pleasant and mildly slow study; “Pull Counter” has an upbeat and mildly tense theme punctuated by sudden, brief “punches.”

Coleman’s mathematical mindset is still all over the music, of course. “Morphing,” the album’s 14-minute centerpiece, is based on an impossibly long composed theme that was sparked by “one impulsive moment,” Coleman writes. It’s a trail that keeps twisting and twisting.

The band consists of three other horns and Kristin Lee on violin, who is a key part of the punch in “Pull Counter.” There’s no drummer, but Neeraj Mehta adds percussion to five of the tracks, adding tension to tracks like the hard-digging “Horda” or the contemplative improvisation “NOH.”

Getting back to the idea of big-band swing — the track that reminds me most of grand ballroom jazz is “Roll Under and Angles,” even though it doesn’t strictly sound traditional. Maybe it’s the overall velvety touch, or the way Rane Moore deploys the clarinet, or the breezy fills provided by Lee and vocalist Jen Shyu. I find myself especially savoring the gentle bass — simple, cushioned taps by Greg Chudzik.

(The solar eclipse happens to be tomorrow, but the timing of this post is just coincidental. I started writing it weeks ago, and I’m just slow.)