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.

Jen Baker’s Resonant Space

Jen Baker performs in various groups, every night from Monday, Feb. 7 through Friday, Feb. 11. Details below.

Jen BakerBlue Dreams (Dilapidated Barns, 2008)

She calls it “lyrical vibrations:” the music that can be produced by singing into the trombone while playing. The parallel tracks of melody come out in a buzzy, growling sound that’s quite close to Tuvan throat singing. It’s certainly something different.

Before leaving the Bay Area for New York — where she’s now part of the madcap Asphalt Orchestra — Jen Baker was working on this concept, exploring its musical possibilities. She’ll be back this week in a series of improv shows where I would assume she’ll continue that exploration — and try out whatever other techniques she’s been interested in.

There is admittedly a sameness to the lyrical vibrations tracks on Blue Dreams. With the exception of “Pip Squeak,” a cute dijeridoo-like hoedown, the music is all improvised. But the music is toneful — that is, it doesn’t come from the sound-sculpture school of abstract improv. In addition to the Tuvans, Baker lists Gregorian chant as an influence, and her shares the same sense of “meandering melodic lines,” as she puts it in the liner notes.

The melodies process slowly, not surprising considering the trombone isn’t as fleet an instrument as, say, a piccolo. Some of the most interesting effects come when the vocal and trombone melodies diverge. More often, I think the trombone or vocal holds one note while the other instrument varies in pitch, creating something almost like a dijeridoo drone but not quite. “Neptunian Love Song,” the longest track on the album (5 minutes) is packed with both types of moments.

Careful listening also reveals different kinds of interference between the voice and trombone, creating little pulses in the long tones. Baker hits a couple of these delicious dissonances early in “17 Unpredictably Disappears,” one of the album’s more abrasive melodies.

For some samples, check Baker’s web site.

Here’s her upcoming calendar (see also BayImproviser or the Transbay Calendar). Lyrical vibrations won’t be the only musical tool she’ll use, but I would expect it to be a big part of some of these shows, especially the Mills events.

Mon., Feb. 7 — Solo performance at the Mills College Ensemble Room. Free.

Tues., Feb. 8 — Quartet that includes Tony Dryer (bass) and Jacob Felix Heule (drums), 2/3 of the spacious improv trio Idea of West. At The Uptown, opening for the Oakland Active Orchestra. Free.

Weds., Feb. 9 — In various improv combinations with Phillip Greenlief (sax), Ava Mendoza (guitar), and Lisa Mezzacappa (bass). At Mama Buzz Cafe, $5.

Thurs., Feb. 10 — Baker (mostly) takes over the weekly Luggage Store Gallery show, performing solo and in trio. Sliding scale admission, $6-$10.

Fri., Feb. 11 — Back at Mills, playing in the resonant atrium of the Concert Hall. This will be a quartet called DYNOSAUR, consisting of three brass players and Karen Stackpole’s gongs. Expect lots of echoing.