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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Friday, October 1, 2010

Steve Coleman—Saxophone Funkmaster, Musical Philosopher, Shaman, Baffler

I've been meaning, seemingly forever, to spend more time with the recent music of Steve Coleman, the saxophonist and composer.  His "M-BASE" construct is often discussed, but what does it mean?  Why does his music frequently seem mechanical, yet how has he also gathered the rapt attention of so many great musicians?

And, for me, hadn't I been a massive fan of a few of early albums?  Had something changed?

The release of his new Harvesting Semblances and Affinities on Pi gave me a great excuse to think this all through in a new JAZZ TODAY.  You can check it out here.

Coleman's music is, without a doubt, often organized by a formal concept rather than by expressive necessity.  In other words, he is using ideas rather than passions to construct his art.  In writing and in other arts, I've always been taught that his is a mistake—focusing on your tool rather than your output.  But in Coleman's case, the output has nevertheless been frequently thrilling.  And sometimes numbing, yes, but perhaps that's the price an artist pays for working out new ways to move the art forward.

Harvesting Semblances and Affinities is not different than Coleman's other work, but it is very successful.  It's funky and shimmering, it's mind-expanding and feeling.   The terrific Kevin Whitehead said this on Fresh Air when he reviewed the disc:  “If Steve Coleman’s music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it’s because he’s more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood. That’s okay; there’s room for all kinds of approaches.”  I agree. Coleman’s music is riveting but often more for your head than for your heart. As a result, he has created interesting new structures for jazz composition and improvisation, and he has seeded many interesting clouds.

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