Steve Coleman, Dancing and Jabbing

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

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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.)

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.

Iyer Alone

Vijay IyerSolo (ACT, 2010)

As much as critics raved about it, the inclusion of “Human Nature” on Vijay Iyer’s solo piano album gave me pause.

Look, I understand people’s love for Michael Jackson, and I can respect it — but only when we’re talking about the driven, funky Michael Jackson, not the diluted lite-rock version.

The track comes up first on Solo, and possibly because I don’t know the song, I didn’t recognize what was happening. (I’ll sometimes listen to an album “blind” at first, without consulting the track list.) I heard a lyrical, pretty piece — very ECM-like — with a recognizably repeating bassline and a rustling, shifting feeling. A peaceful air, but busy with lots of little notes, lost of activity.

All right, it’s pretty good. And then the chorus kicked in. I’d been tricked into actually liking the song.

In Iyer’s earlier work, I’d focused on the steely modernity. Solo presents a more lyrical side, forcing you to concentrate more on the details of Iyer’s playing. I don’t want to call the music new-agey, because I tend to use that term as an insult. But it’s got a contemplative melodic sense, while still sometimes peppering the ears with 32nd-note teletype raindrops.

About half of the album is covers, including a couple of slowly savored Duke Ellington pieces. When it comes to Iyer’s own compositions, you get more of that serious, lyrical bent, where the music hovers and opens up space for thinking.

But Iyer still has that stormy, forceful style at his beck and call. The closing “One for Blount” (a Sun Ra nod) is one example. So is “Epistrophy,” a particularly interesting cover that gets reflected in a cracked mirror, with clumps of Monkian chords distorted and flung about. The theme is immediately familiar even though it comes to your ears in shards. “Autoscopy” includes some scattery fast work but gives way to a flowing, rainy-day cascading, used as backdrop for a slower melody.

The Bunky Green Challenge

I’m going to accept the challenge Ethan Iverson puts forth on his Do the Math blog.  I’m going to find out more about Bunky Green.

Iverson’s thoughts on Green’s 2006 album, Another Place, which includes Jason Moran on piano: “Wow!  They still make jazz records like this, full of this kind of grease and fire?”

Then there’s this, about Green himself:  “He turns 75 in two days and Steve Coleman wouldn’t exist without him.”

And I like that Iverson uses the word “futuristic,” the same word I use to describe that kind of other-plane soloing Coleman is known for. (And Green, apparently.)  The kind that’s not simply outside the changes; it’s using an unorthodox math to create a specific, deliberate sound, a new structure around the changes. Iverson’s choice of the word makes me feel a little bit proud, like I’ve gotten the answer right on a hard quiz.

From the sound snippets on Do the Math, taken from Green’s work on the Elvin Jones album Time Capsule, Green and Coleman do have a lot in common — the major difference being their eras. Green plays against rich, post-bop backdrops, traditional sounding stuff until his solo opens the dimensional portal and lets all the aliens in.  Coleman benefitted from a 1980s era obsessed with new things and new technology, where M-base could thrive and define some of its own rules. I remember getting so happily lost in Coleman’s Black Science album — funky, driven, and complex, but without a compass during the improvised sections.

Another descendent of Green and Coleman might be the geometric, steel-and-glass sounds of musicians like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. And hey look — the thing that started Iverson talking about Green was the band Apex, which includes Green and Mahanthappa and apparently recorded last week, a session to be released in the fall on Pi Recordings. Check out Ben Ratliff’s review of their show in the New York Times.

Steve Lehman Infiltrates Your Brain

Steve Lehman Octet — Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi, 2009)

source: pirecordings.comThere’s a lot of publicity surrounding this album, and it’s justified. This feels like something big.

It’s like Steve Coleman‘s music taken to a stranger, spongier dimension. As with Coleman, the machinelike quality of the music — quick-fingered, mechanical beats; precise, stiff sax lines — doesn’t take away from its soul. You want to dance, but while the beat remains precise, the rhythms inside it are dense and changing. It’s like trying to catch a river with your hands.

The band has five horns, but the cool tremor of Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the defining voice, dotting the landscape like silvery beads of mercury. It’s the sound that you walk away with, and it contributes to the sci-fi feeling of the music, part of a busy and exciting future.

(Drummer Tyshawn Sorey has a lot to do with that, too. He’s also the drummer for the trio Fieldwork; I’ve described them, and pianist Vijay Iyer, before in the same futuristic steel-and-glass terms.)

Some of the sound is based on spectral harmony, a concept where new harmonies are built from the overtones found in the attack and decay of notes. Examples of this appear right off, in the opening “Echoes,” which uses a straight-chiming rhythm backed by really odd-sounding horns doing a low, dissonant buzz. Lehman then joins in for some gazelle-prancing soloing that dances around the lines. Weird chords abound, stretched by unusual harmonies in the sax line.

The album ends with a coolly sinister/smooth transcription of “Living in the World Today” by GZA (a member of Wu Tang Clan), a tale told with horns babbling one or two at a time in chaotic precision.