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Steve Coleman

Reviewed on this page:
Motherland Pulse - On The Edge Of Tomorrow - World Expansion (By The M-Base Neophyte) - Cipher Syntax - Sine Die - Rhythm People - Black Science - Rhythm In Mind - Anatomy Of A Groove - Drop Kick - A Tale Of 3 Cities - Def Trance Beat - Myths, Modes And Means - Curves Of Life - The Way Of The Cipher - The Sign And The Seal - Genesis and The Opening Of The Way - The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing - Resistance Is Futile Alternate Dimension Series I - On The Rising Of The 64 Paths - Lucidarium - Weaving Symbolics - Harvesting Semblances And Affinities - The Mancy Of Sound

Chicago-born Steve Coleman is a composer, alto sax player and band leader who's one of the foremost proponents of a wave of jazz that started in the 1980s, blending a venturous post-bop sensibility, a funky bottom, and exciting polyrhythms, often in odd meters. Coleman named the movement "M-Base," standing for "Macro - Basic Array of Structural Extemporization" (your guess is as good as mine), and the circle of like-minded musicians also included such notables as Geri Allen and Cassandra Wilson. What I love about Coleman is that he doesn't make you choose between using your head and shaking your butt: he doesn't believe in separating mind and body, and keeps grounded no matter how esoteric his spiritual and musical pursuits get. While early cohorts like Cassandra Wilson and Geri Allen have become increasingly popular by moving towards the mainstream, Coleman continues to do his own thing: abstract, intellectual but still solidly grooving. (DBW)

Motherland Pulse (and Five Elements: 1985)
The band is Geri Allen (piano), Smitty Smith (drums), Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Graham Haynes (trumpet), and the sound is surprisingly acoustic compared with the following albums. And more traditional: "Irate Blues" shows a strong Thelonious Monk influence; Coleman's bent notes on "Glide" recall Miles Davis in a lyrical mood. But it's not quiet, driven by the two horns, egged on by Allen, frequently erupting in furious bursts of energy ("Cud Ba-Rith"). Vocalist Cassandra Wilson guests on "No Good Time Fairies" - as with her later M-Base work, she sounds perfectly at home but too ethereal to invite you in. "Another Level" features just Coleman and Smith, but remains attention-grabbing due to restless explorations by each. If you're funk-averse you might want to start here; otherwise, it's an interesting launch point to a notable career. (DBW)

On The Edge Of Tomorrow (and Five Elements: 1986)
Allen switches to synth, Kevin Bruce Harris and Kelvyn Bell join on electric bass and guitar respectively, and suddenly the ensemble is in advanced funk territory ("Fat Lay Back"). Many of the compositions are up to the level of Coleman's great early 90s records ("Nine To Five"), but the players sometimes aren't: Allen in particular often gets stuck in generic R&B synth clichés ("Fire Revisited"), and Bell's only real solo (on "Stone Bone (Can't Go Wrong)") is in a distressingly conventional Pat Metheny mode. Plus, there are some distracting raps: "Change The Guard," "Profile Man" - "(In Order To Form) A More Perfect Union" begins and ends with an annoying synth-processed voiceover, but in between it's a wonderful groove. Wilson sings on many of the tracks, and is spotlighted on "Little One I'll Miss You." There are a bunch of short tracks (two or three minutes), a trend which accelarated on the next album and then suddenly reversed itself. (DBW)

World Expansion (By The M-Base Neophyte) (and Five Elements: 1987)
Mark Johnson is the drummer here, though Smith returned for the following record, and Robin Eubanks joins on trombone. Allen returns to acoustic piano on "Dream State" (sung by Wilson) with devastating results. More problematic are several tunes sung by D.K. Dyson, who belts like Teena Marie with the same aggravating self-importance ("Desperate Move," which does have a terrific Coleman solo and a wonderful heavy bass line; "To Perpetuate The Funk"). Some of those tracks work despite her ("Tang Lung"), but there are so many solid Five Elements releases without her it's hard to rate this one too high. The disc also makes extensive use of song fragments, many of which are so good you wish they were longer ("In The Park," which is just Coleman blowing over a dense percussion base; "Urilal Thane," with Bell getting a sitar-like effect). (DBW)

Cipher Syntax (Strata Institute: 1988)
Co-led by Coleman and saxophonist Greg Osby, and the personnel is basically the Five Elements but without the pop elements (no synth, no vocals). David Gilmore joins on guitar; he would remain an Element for several years; Bob Hurst is on bass. All the basic Coleman characteristics are here: unsettling polyrhythms ("Abacus"), long melodic figures in tight unison ("Micro-Move"), high-energy if abstract soloing ("Bed-Stuy"). ... there's even a slow number ("Humantic"). But somehow it doesn't hold together: the weird time signatures feel off-balance ("Slang"), a couple of the riffs are ordinary ("Ihgnat"), and too often the band feels like they're each out for themselves rather than blending ("Wild"). There are some great cuts - the low-key, gently twisting "Turn Of Events"; the steady-rolling funk of "Decrepidus" - just not as many as normal. (DBW)

Sine Die (and Five Elements: 1988)
The group's debut on Pangaea, but it's not a departure except for the welcome disappearance of Dyson. There are more diffuse Wilson features than usual ("Soul Melange"), and she also adds spoken word to a rather rambling "Dark To Light." But there's also a fair amount of what the group does best: long horn melodies over a complex rhythm section on "Proteus"; a mellow intro and outro bracketing a busy main theme on "Cinema Saga"; a blazing Gilmore solo on the furious "Circle C." There aren't many fragments this time, except for the gorgeous, horns-only "Passage." Guests include Allen, Osby, Gary Thomas and Branford Marsalis both on tenor; Harris and Plaxico both appear on bass. (DBW)

Rhythm People (The Resurrection of Creative Black Civilization) (and Five Elements: 1990)
Mostly this is the dense polyrhythmic funk Coleman's best known for, powered by "Smitty" Smith's unerring drumming and new member Reggie Washington's solid electric bass (Dave Holland plays acoustic bass on four tracks). The tunes are tricky and interesting (title track, "Steppin'"), but Coleman spoils a couple with flat didactic raps ("No Conscience," "The Posse") and guitarist David Gilmore is underused. Not as ear-catchingly arranged as the next few Five Elements releases, but on the other hand, the smaller group leaves him more room to solo, with particularly good results on the title track. Pianist James Weidman also stretches out to pleasant effect on "Blues Shifting" and "Armageddon" (which also features impressionistic vocals from Wilson). Robin Eubanks adds trombone to half the tracks. (DBW)

Black Science (and Five Elements: 1991)
More complex time signatures made funky and accessible, with Gilmore more prominent in the mix ("The X Format (Standard Deviation)") and all the band members in fine form ("Cross-Fade"). Wilson is finally given something substantial to sing: Coleman's lyrics on the dramatic "Beyond All We Know," with ominous piano and cymbal washes like 1965 Coltrane. Also, Coleman wisely brings in Dave Mills to write and perform an extended rap on "Ghost Town." All the guests and variety on Drop Kick make that a better record to start with, but there's nothing to complain about here. (DBW)

Transmigration (Strata Institute: 1991)
The second and last release from this Coleman/Osby project, with Gilmore and Smith joined by Kenny Davis (bass) and Von Freeman (tenor sax). Includes a few covers (Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," Henry Mancini's "Mr. Lucky"). (DBW)

Phase-Space (Steve Coleman/Dave Holland: 1994)
Duets for alto and acoustic bass, featuring some tunes by Holland ("Dream Of The Elders"), some by Coleman ("Cud Ba-Rith") and some standards (Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha"). (DBW)

Rhythm In Mind (1991)
Coleman's goal here was to find the common link among all the currents in 20th century creative black music (see Quincy Jones' Back On The Block and the School Daze soundtrack for less successful shots at the same target). He doesn't pull that off, but it's a solid piece of work anyway, showing that he can compose and perform more traditional jazz than his Five Elements work. Tommy Flanagan shines on his feature ("Sweet Dawn"), Kenny Wheeler's trumpet playing is beautiful on "Afterthoughts," "Left Of Center" is intricate and moving, and the Trane-influenced "Vet Blues" is fun if overlong. There are two tunes by Thad Jones ("Slipped Again" and "Zec"), and the fine swinging "Pass It On" is by Dave Holland. The band is veterans Flanagan (piano), Ed Blackwell (drums), Holland (acoustic bass) and Von Freeman (tenor), plus whippersnappers Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Wheeler and Smith. (DBW)

Anatomy Of A Groove (M-Base Collective: 1992)
The main difference between this M-Base Collective release and a Five Elements record is that the band members contributed to the writing: Coleman only wrote two of the nine songs, and co-wrote two others, while everyone except Smitty Smith gets at least a co-write. The results are mixed; Gilmore's "Nobody Told Me" is a fine effort that makes good use of two funk basses (Harris and Washington) though his own long, meandering solo is a disappointment; Andy Milne's "Teefah" is rather insubstantial. Cassandra Wilson is present throughout, and her vocals lift many of the tracks (Coleman's kinetic "Cool Lou"), and her own "One Bright Morning" showcases the slow, lyrical direction she was taking with her solo career. Overall, enough points of interest to keep this from being just another brilliant Coleman effort. (DBW)

Drop Kick (and Five Elements: 1992)
At this point Five Elements were Andy Milne and James Weidman, keyboards; David Gilmore, guitar; Reggie Washington, bass; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums. The funky bass and guitar make even the most complex rhythms accessible ("Ramses") and there are a lot of edgy, fascinating grooves ("Bates Motel," "Tschanz"). There isn't a lot of individual soloing, but since the base is constantly shifting, it doesn't get dull. Meshell Johnson (now better known as Me'Shell NdegéOcello) and Camille Gainer fill in on bass and drums on three of the record's best tracks (title track, "Z Train," "Dread Drop"); Wilson, Don Byron (on clarinet and bass clarinet), Lance Bryant (tenor sax) and Osby also guest. (DBW)

The Tao Of Mad Phat (Fringe Zones) (and Five Elements: 1993)
Recorded live in the studio. (DBW)

A Tale of 3 Cities - The EP (and Metrics: 1994)
This is identified as an EP release, but I figured it was a reasonable buy because it has six tunes and runs over forty minutes. My mistake: this is Coleman's jazz/hip-hop hybrid, and it's awful. Despite claims to the contrary, the album covers the same ground as earlier jazz cats-meet-rappers efforts like Red Hot + Cool, only duller: every track is based on a couple of stale bop lines endlessly repeated, and the rappers lack vocal presence or any coherent message. Ravi Coltrane (yes, Trane's son) is on here somewhere, but since there are no horn solos, you can't hear him much. Reggie Washington plays propulsive, sensitive electric bass, providing practically the only interest on the album. Greg Lake is on drums, Michael Wimberly adds percussion, and Ralph Alessi plays trumpet. The rappers include Sub-Zero, Kokayi and Shahliek. (DBW)

Def Trance Beat (Modalities Of Rhythm) (and Five Elements: 1994)
By now Coltrane and Lake had been promoted to Elements; Smith, Weidman and Gilmore were gone. Without the guitar the sound is less like funky fusion and more like polyrhythmic Latin jazz. On the covers, Jerry Goldsmith's "Flint" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," the band sounds positively ordinary. Coleman starts each track with an alto solo, and throughout he plays more than on any other release I've heard - I don't find his solos particularly gripping, though. There's plenty of the usual weird time signatures and heavy grooves ("Multiplicity Of Approaches (The Afrikan Way Of Knowing)," "Patterns Of Force") on this lengthy disc, but it's no place to start with Coleman. (DBW)

Myths, Modes & Means (and the Mystic Rhythm Society: 1995)
A live record by this new incarnation, which he put together to explore the "structure of the universe." Nothing like setting yourself challenging goals. Anyway, the personnel's mostly the same as the other two bands, with Milne, Lake and Washington prominently featured, but he's added Miya Masaoka on koto and Kokayi on spoken lyrics, each of whom receive extended solo features. There are three twenty-minute tunes here, plus a handful of shorter ones, and the disparate musical elements aren't integrated particularly well - it often sounds like a rehearsal by talented musicians who don't know each other's work. The best moments are when the band sounds most like Five Elements ("The Initiate"), which makes you wonder about the whole concept, and indeed, Mystic Rhythm's 1996 studio album uses a completely different approach. (DBW)

The Way Of The Cipher (and Metrics: 1995)
Another live record, and a huge step up from the previous studio release by Metrics: Coleman's bothered to put together real tunes instead of vamps (nothing is repeated from the earlier EP), and the musicians (including Ralph Alessi on trumpet) get to stretch out on solos. It's interesting to hear Coleman's band play several tunes in straight 4/4 time, and it's even more interesting to hear the rappers (Kokayi, Sub-Zero and Black Indian) successfully tackling Coleman's odd, shifting time signatures. Though two of the rappers are held over from the previous project, they're far more confident and entertaining here, ripping off rapid-fire toungue-twisting rhymes in that mid-80s style that's sorely missed nowadays ("Freestyle," "Laxed & Warped"). (DBW)

Curves Of Life (and Five Elements: 1995)
Completing the trio of live albums; the band is down to four members (Coltrane isn't here), although saxophonist David Murray sits in on two tunes, and the sound is rather thin. "Country Bama" is a 19-minute improvised track that's rather repetitive - Washington sounds like he's having an off night - the live versions of "Multiplicity of Approaches" and "Drop Kick" are enjoyable, but not as dense or vital as the original versions. The cover of Monk's "Round Midnight" is chaotic and underdone. But the record finishes strong, with a lovely acoustic version of "The Gypsy" and a funky head-bobbing tune called "I'm Burnin Up (Fire Theme)" with the Metrics rappers sitting in. (DBW)

The Sign And The Seal (and The Mystic Rhythm Society: 1996)
An interesting project: Coleman took his multifaceted new band to Cuba to work with AfroCuba de Matanzas, studying traditional Cuban forms with an emphasis on the music of Africa-based religions including santería and abacuá. Unlike fusion efforts like those of Sintesis, the instrumentation is nearly all acoustic and largely traditional; there are no pop elements at all. For once Coleman actually collaborates on the compositions: AfroCuba leader Francisco Zamora Chirino co-wrote much of the disc, and Rosangela Silvestre contributes the love poem "Saudade" (yes, that's Portuguese). There's a lot of good stuff here, including an amalgam of sacred forms ("Secretos Del Abacuá), a fairly traditional guaguancó ("The Mystery of Seven"), and some fine integrations of M-Base concepts with Cuban instrumentation ("The Seal"). Personnel is basically unchanged except for the very capable Anthony Tidd replacing Washington on bass. A must if you're interested in non-traditional but non-trivializing approaches to Cuban music. (DBW)

Genesis and The Opening Of The Way (1997)
A two-disc set, one with a large group called Council Of Life (Genesis) and the other with Five Elements (The Opening Of The Way). The big-band disc isn't very interesting: the rhythm section plays standard M-Base figures ("Day Two") while the fourteen horns play tightly harmonized lines, and some strings occasionally saw away in the background ("Day Seven"). Occasionally the mix boils over into cacophony, but not the cathartic kind (the latter part of "Day One"); the tunes average nearly ten minutes (aside from the closing "Awareness), but hold your interest less than half that time. The Five Elements disc, though, is a blast: new bassist David Dyson drives the tunes with funky walking lines ("Law Of Balance") - Washington adds acoustic bass to some cuts - Gilmore's back on guitar ("First Cause"), and lush Latin percussion from Miguez Diaz Zayas keeps the sound from getting too astringent ("The Law"). It's no revelation if you've heard any other Five Elements recordings - everything's oddly-metered mid-tempo fusion except for the moody piano-led "Rite Of Passage" - but it's fun. (DBW)

The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing (and Five Elements: 1998)
By almost anyone else's standards, this would be both ambitious and successful, but measured against Coleman's other work, it falls short both ways. At this point the other Elements were Sean Rickman and Miguel Diaz (percussion), Silvestre (dance and vocals) and Tidd, plus about twenty guests on one tune or another, including Coltrane, Washington, and pianist Jason Moran. Of the seven tracks, three feature vocalists ("Maat," "Seth" and "Ausar"), and five have a string section, so the sound is denser than ever, with the strings often droning single notes ("Precession") while Coleman solos. Sometimes he approaches the stateliness and anticipant atmosphere of Coltrane circa 1964, though he doesn't quite pull it off: stylistically "Seth" is a cross between "Selflessness" and "Kulu Se Mama," but the call and response vocals drag on so long it loses focus. The string-free tracks are "The Twelve Powers," strongly syncopated in familiar Elements style, livened up by Stefon Harris on vibes, and climaxing with everyone soloing simultaneously except for bass and drums, and "The Gate," a brief horns-only excercise recalling earlier fragments like "Passage." The oddly-timed groove "Heru" is even closer to 80s/early 90s Coleman, but the theme is forgettable. (DBW)

The Ascension To Light (1999)

Resistance Is Futile (and Five Elements: 2001)
This two-disc live set, recorded in France, makes a heck of a case for Coleman as a traditional jazzman. The experimental and fusion trappings are missing - no guitar, no synth, no strings, almost no vocals - so the focus is squarely on the compositions and the endlessly flexible, panrhythmic band. All phases of Coleman's career are covered, from "Nine To Five" through "Pad Thai" to "Wheel Of Nature." The title track and "Reflex" are new, and atypically, there are several standards: Mal Waldron's "Straight Ahead," Robin/Rainger's "Easy Living," Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha" and a brief take on Monk's "Straight No Chaser." The band is Rickman, Tidd, Milne, Jesús Diaz (percussion) and Jonathan Finlayson and Ambrose Campbell-Akinmusire (trumpets); several tunes stretch out past ten minutes but never drag, with heavy vamps underlying the extended solos ("Wheel Of Nature"). Without the usual distractions, and as the only saxophonist, Coleman shows that he's a powerful soloist as well as bandleader; Milne also gets a lot more space than on previous recordings, and takes full advantage of it. (DBW)

Alternate Dimension Series I (2002)
Available for free download at Coleman's site, which makes my review pointless, I guess: if you have a fast connection, you can go hear the thing as fast as you can read my opinion. Anyway, there are two different bands, each using the same format: acoustic and electric bass, three percussionists, and no guitar or keyboards. The horns are prominent, making the performances jazzier and less funky than usual ("Common Law"), while the Latin percussion adds interest without being jarring ("Ascending Numeration"). Most of the compositions are quite abstract - Coleman's been basing his compositions on advanced and/or mystical mathematics for a while, but this time it really shows - and while some are fascinating ("Cycle Of Absolute Dominants") I find others scattered and hard to grasp (the downtempo "Reflection Upon Two Worlds"). (DBW)

On The Rising Of The 64 Paths (and Five Elements: 2002)
By now the Five Elements are Tidd, Washington, Rickman, Finlayson and Malik Mezzadri (flute and vocals). With no guitar or keyboards, the sound is much more open, and the slower numbers have a serene meditative quality ("Mist And Counterpoise"). Mezzadri also makes the disc stand from other Five Elements efforts, both with his flute flurries ("Eight Base Probing") and his wordless singing, which often jumps unexpectedly into Philip Bailey's domain ("Call For Transformation")... it sounded shrill and self-indulgent to me at first, but ultimately I heard it as organic and honest. But while Coleman's still trying new instrumental textures, as a composer he's still working with the same bag of tricks, and though the tunes are instantly recognizable as his ("64 Path Bindings"), they're nothing special. The return to "Fire Revisited" doesn't add anything to previous recordings; the only non-Coleman song is Gillespie's "Dizzy Atmosphere," performed not once but twice. (DBW)

Lucidarium (and Five Elements: 2003)
Sort of a sequel to Sonic Language Of Myth, but this time instead of droning strings, there's a group of vocalists imitating droning strings ("Meditations On Cardinal 137"). Coleman's goal was to get away from standard Western tuning, and he got it, all right: much of the disc is a discordant mess ("Kaballah"). Collective improvisation is usually loud and furious, which can have a bracing energy if nothing else; when it's slow and quiet, as here, it's just dreary (title track). Coleman does slip in a couple of his exciting, off-kilter fusion numbers ("Ten Steppin'"), but overall the album is a long, unrewarding slog. A long list of musicians including most of Coleman's regulars, though Dafnis Prieto seems to have replaced Rickman in the drummer's chair. (DBW)

Weaving Symbolics (and Five Elements: 2005)
Another double-CD, recorded partly in the US and partly in Brazil, and it's more schematic than ever ("Tetragrams Astrology I," "Triad Mutations III," and so on). Coleman touches on a huge variety of instrumental textures here: the droning voices are back on "Triad Mutuations II"; vocalist Jen Shyu and Mezzradi battle in the stratosphere on "Li Bai Astrology II"; several pieces feature unaccompanied horns ("Ritual Trio (Air)"). Far-reaching, complex, and varied, but apart from a couple of goodies ("Ritual Septet (Fire)"; "Glyphs In Motion"; the slow, dignified "Unction") it also has nothing that I listen to Coleman - or any music - for: no melodic payoffs, no cathartic vibrance, no emotional reach. On the other hand, if you like 80s King Crimson, which I find similarly geometric and gutless, you may want to check this out. (DBW)

Invisible Paths: First Scattering (2007)
Coleman solo. (DBW)

Harvesting Semblances And Affinities (and Five Elements: 2010)
Coleman moves back in the exciting, polyrhythmic direction of his 90s work ("Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)") while incorporating the mostly acoustic instrumentation of his more recent albums, including Shyu's voice used much the way an ordinary jazz composer would use a trumpet ("Clouds"). Apart from Finlayson and Shyu, the Elements - Tim Albright (trombone), Thomas Morgan (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums) - are new, and Sorey in particular is astounding, bringing a natural feel to the trickiest time signatures ("Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation)"). The overall results is esoteric - even arcane - but also richly satisfying: some tracks are dense with collective improvisation while others feature more traditional one-at-a-time solos; some race from start to finish while others incorporate spacey chill-out segments (Per Nørgård's "Flos Ut Rosa Floruit," the only piece Coleman didn't write). (DBW)

The Mancy Of Sound (and Five Elements: 2011)
Nowadays Coleman rarely uses different band names for his projects, but if he did this would fit under Mystic Rhythm Society: impressionistic horn eddies, Latin hand percussion, chants as well as sung vocals, occasional bass the only string instrument. Though it's the same lineup as the previous record, the results are quite different: at times the sound is more schematic than musical ("Formation 2"); at others, artful though still a bit antiseptic ("Water-Oyeku," part of the Odú Ifá Suite). While so much abstract jazz seems disorganized, if anything these compositions are too rigidly ordered ("Noctiluca (Jan 11)" - one of the few tunes with trap drums). Ultimately, this sort of project stands or falls not on its technical merits, but on how it makes you feel: do you sense transcendence, a Cosmic Whole, something beyond description? And the answer, at least for me, is no. (DBW)

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