Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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COLEMAN, Steve

(b 20 September 1956, Chicago) Alto saxophone, composer, leader. He began on violin at age 14, but switched to alto sax within a year (his father listened to Charlie Parker a lot). He grew up listening closely to Chicago blues and jazz, and by 1978 had a gig at the New Apartment Lounge and was writing music, but had increasingly felt the pull of New York City and moved there that year, where he scuffled, played in the big bands of Sam Rivers, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Cecil Taylor and others, and recorded as a sideman. He never lost his connection with Chicago, the great Von Freeman being his model as an improvisor, but he was looking for a musical conception, and was influenced by Rivers as a composer, and also by drummer/composer Doug Hammond.

Part of scuffling was playing in the street, and an informal group began to coalesce into Steve Coleman and Five Elements. This group began to play in tiny clubs, and developed a concept called M-Base (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization). The early adherents included guitarist Kevin Eubanks (b 15 November 1957, Philadelphia; worked with Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Sam Rivers etc; albums on Elektra, Discovery, JMT, GRP and Blue Note), saxophonist Greg Osby (b 3 August 1960, St Louis), singer Cassandra Wilson and others, 'attempting to develop a modern musical language based on a certain balance of structure and improvisation, incorporating all our members' shared experiences' (Coleman). It wove street sounds (funk, rap, soul etc) into 'nested, looping' jazz structures, and the players were all fearsomely proficient.

M-Base was a philosophical concept, however, not the name of the music or the group. Chris Parker wrote about a gig with Coleman's Five Elements in London in 1996, 'Heard in its proper setting -- a packed club with a standing audience -- the great strengths of the style become apparent ... Bodies were set in motion, not to come to rest until nearly two hours later.' On that occasion it was dance music played by people who could play, as opposed to techno. But critics had often been confused over the years, some seeing Coleman's constantly evolving style as a forced fusion; Francis Davis described it as 'Jazz And Funk Together Again For The Very First Time'. Nevertheless some of them were disappointed when Eubanks and Osby began recording straightahead post-bop jazz on Blue Note. Eubanks's trio Live At Bradley's '94 had him playing very well, but without the more adventurous edge of his earlier work on JMT.

Early Coleman-led albums included Motherland Pulse, On The Edge Of Tomorrow, and World Expansion in the mid-'80s on the German JMT label, and Sine Die '88 on Pangaea; he hit a stride with BMG Novus albums as Steve Coleman and Five Elements: Rhythm People '90, Drop Kick '91, Black Science '92, The Tao Of Mad-Phat Fringe Zones '93. Manwhile Coleman had been studying the latest tools, such as computer programming, and the oldest traditions, starting in West Africa. The entire M-Base Collective made Anatomy Of A Groove, still on BMG. However, Coleman had made his first trip overseas, to Ghana in late '93-early '94 to study the Dagbon drum language, the beginning of an odyssey which has kept him on the road off and on ever since. Back in the USA he recorded Def Trance Beat and A Tale Of Three Cities '94 (the latter with the Metrics, including members of Five Elements). Under Coleman's own name, Rhythm In Mind '93 was an octet with Freeman, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Wheeler, Ed Blackwell, Dave Holland, Marvin 'Smitty' Smith and guitarist Eubanks. Phase=Space '91 on DIW was a duo with Holland.

In the mid-1990s a group called Renegade Way variously included Coleman, Osby, Joe Lovano, Craig Handy, Bunky Green, Gary Thomas and Ravi Coltrane on saxophones, but no edition of this group made any recordings. A boxed set from BMG/France included three Coleman albums recorded live in March 1995 in Paris by three different Coleman groups: Curves of Life by Five Elements, The Way of the Cipher with Metrics and Myths, Modes and Means by the Mystic Rhythm Society, the last directly influenced by the trip to Ghana. There was also another experimental ensemble called The Secret Doctrine.

Finally Coleman was following the path of ancient African religions from Nigeria to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Haiti, finding great complexity in the way the traditions had been adopted and changed in each place. He landed in Matanzas, Cuba in early '96, taking part in the Havana Jazz Festival with dancers, a small film crew and a folkloric group called AfroCuba de Matanzas: an album on BMG/France was called The Sign And The Seal by Steve Coleman and the Mystic Rhythm Society (a septet with Ravi Coltrane on tenor and trumpeter Ralph Alessi) plus (recorded in Cuba) AfroCuba de Matanzas, a change from the usual 4/4 rhythmic basis. The combined groups toured Europe in 1997.

A big band, Steve Coleman and The Council of Balance, made Genesis that year, released in a two-CD set with The Opening of the Way by Five Elements. Continuing workshops and research visits to Senegal, Egypt, and India influenced The Sonic Language of Myth '99 and The Ascension to Light 2000, still on BMG. A sabbatical from performing and recording included more travel, research at IRCAM in Paris (the famous Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music founded by Pierre Boulez), and becoming a professor on music at the University of California/Berkeley and CNMAT (the Center for New Music and Technologies). Signing with another label in France, Label Bleu, resulted in a live 2-CD set Resistance is Futile 2001, On the Rising of the 64 Paths 2002, Lucidarium 2004 and Weaving Symbolics 2006, all with Five Elements. Invisible Paths: First Scattering 2007 was a solo saxophone album on Tzadik, and Five Elements were back for Harvesting Semblances and Affinities 2010 on Pi.

Meanwhile, Five Elements had made an album, Alternate Dimension Series 1, that is available as a free download from Coleman's website, where there is also more information about his influences, his many grants and commissions and much evidence of his business sense: he could not have accomplished all this without two feet on the ground. Eve-Marie Breglia had been shooting documentary footage since 1996 on the subject of cultural transference, which is as good a name as any for Coleman's quest.The film is called Elements of One.