The Pulses of Jazz to Come: Saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Rhythm Science

The Pulses of Jazz to Come: Saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Rhythm Science
Saxophonist Steve Coleman
(© Michael Weintrob)

“Well, we feel for several pulses.”

That was my revelatory moment, gained from an acupuncturist checking my vital signs. Without delving too deeply into the differences between Eastern and Western medicine, the realization was comforting: Like the music I prefer, the body I live in is polyrhythmic. Like a musician freed from the tyranny of a steady 4/4 beat, I enjoy the sublime freedom of being kept alive by pulses that never merely keep straight time.


Beatwise, it turns out we’re all irregular. As with organic life, music (at least the good kind) moves in complex and systemic fashion. The most interesting research into the connection between musical rhythms and bodily beats I’ve found comes from Milford Graves, who, as a drummer, was proclaimed by Down Beat magazine in 1967 to be the brightest new talent; as an educator, has taught improvisation at Bennington College for decades; and, as a healer, has conducted persuasive enough research into music’s physiological effects to earn a Guggenheim Foundation grant.

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman spent many hours in conversation with Graves about this research before recording “Functional Arrhythmias,” (Pi Recordings), the latest in the consistently brilliant output by Coleman’s Five Elements band. (The band will tour in Europe April 11-19 and play six nights, with special guests, beginning April 23 at The Stone in Manhattan.)

In his liner notes, Coleman calls the new CD “my attempt at creating a musical analogy of the interactions between the circulatory, nervous, respiratory, and other biological systems of the human body.” He likes to create improvised music that draws upon systems of organization and flow. His 2010 Five Elements release, “Harvesting Semblances and Affinities” referenced phases of the moon.

All this might seem merely esoteric were it not for Coleman’s eminence as a player, composer, and bandleader. Now 56, he is among modern jazz’s most influential and least compromising musicians. As an alto saxophonist, he evokes elements of Charlie Parker’s improvisational style through a distinctly personal and entirely modern approach; as a composer and bandleader, he’s developed structures for group improvisation that, much like Ornette Coleman’s or Henry Threadgill’s, build collective cohesion while tearing down formal conventions.

I first interviewed Coleman in 1998 through a three-hour conversation that spilled into a 4,000-word piece for Jazziz magazine, of which I was then editor. At one point, he told me:

I play a community music. A lot of times, I go home and my family is pretty naïve about what I do. They’re like, ‘Can you take out your horn and play that song you just recorded?’ I try to tell them that it’s really not that kind of music, that if I play just a single line on my horn, you’ll have no idea what it sounds like. They’ll be saying ‘Why not? Can’t you play it? Don’t you know your own music?’ It’s communal music. In my African languages, they don’t even have a word for I, or mine, or myself. People are always trying to give someone the credit, make someone the leader. And that effort hurts us because things don’t last that long as a result.

The community fostered by Coleman’s music is large and growing; his influence can be heard in the work of literally dozens of musicians, including singer Cassandra Wilson, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and pianist Vijay Iyer. “It’s hard to overstate Steve’s influence,” said Iyer, who worked with Coleman for six years. “He’s affected more than one generation, as much as anyone since John Coltrane.” Coleman’s new CD is especially intriguing for its incarnation of Five Elements, which features standout former members Anthony Tidd (on electric bass) and Sean Rickman (drums) alongside two stirring players just beginning to make bold marks as leaders themselves — guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson.

In terms of his own development, Coleman cites wisdom gained indirectly from sources like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Beethoven, and Bartók, among others — from studying their original writings and commentary, whenever possible — and from direct apprenticeships with saxophonist Von Freeman in Chicago, bandleaders Thad Jones and Sam Rivers in New York, and perhaps most forcefully, with a lesser-known drummer/composer named Doug Hammond. Yet Coleman has never sounded derivative of anyone. That’s what made singer Abbey Lincoln take to him — “He’s his own man,” she told me a decade ago, “and there aren’t too many of those around anymore.”

I once asked Coleman about moving from emulation to creation, and what he said stuck with me:

The trick is and was when I looked at great musicians, it wasn’t enough to say they were great. I had to look at how did they become that way? To me, that was the most important thing. At one point, Bird [Charlie Parker] couldn’t play shit. And then he became this great master. What happened in between? What were the steps? I don’t care if it was Bird, Beethoven, Belá Bartók, whoever. What were the steps that took them from where we all come from to the point they reached? One of the things I noticed was that they developed a sense of individuality and creativity at the same time they were getting their thing together.

Coleman hitchhiked from his native Chicago to New York in 1978 and quickly found spots in both the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard and Sam Rivers’s loft-based RivBea Orchestra. “I got in on one of the last great big bands,” he said more recently, “and I caught the tail end of the loft scene.” He soon sought and found his own musical environment, rehearsing mostly in Brooklyn and performing at now defunct, under-the-radar Manhattan clubs. (Though he moved to Allentown, Pa., in 1992, his hand in the New York scene has remained direct, not least through ongoing public workshops he has directed for more than a decade, most recently at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery.)

Throbs of electric bass and occasionally tart punches of horn harmony have led some critics to reach for the nearest four-letter f-word — “funk” — when describing Five Elements. Funky, yes; funk, no. Despite its roots in jazz tradition, Coleman’s aesthetic is not easily named. One name, “M-BASE,” was tossed out in the 1980s by Coleman and his associates, through a collective that included Wilson, trumpeter Graham Haynes, pianist Geri Allen, and saxophonist Greg Osby. The acronym, for “Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization,” stuck for a while — less a descriptor than a signal that, within the context of a then-conservative New York jazz scene, here was something new. “It’s a name we gave to a mentality, a certain attitude about music,” Coleman said. “It’s just how we felt about things.”

Wilson once recalled those days in Brooklyn for me:

The very first song Steve played for me in Brooklyn, ‘No Good Time Fairies,’ was in 4/4, but it flowed across the bar lines, and it sounded like it was a different time signature. I knew there was some science there that I didn’t know anything about because it was so different from what anybody else was doing. And he had an idea of writing music as drum chants — structuring songs so that everybody is clued into what’s happening with the drums more so than with the harmonic structure. That was not the way most jazz musicians thought at that time. Steve made me realize that I shouldn’t be writing songs to fit a certain format. I should be writing songs that actually come from who I am and not worry about whether it fits inside a certain expected formula.

Of the many ideas embedded in Coleman’s music — abiding respect for the elements and feel of R&B, for instance, and a mutable line between composition and improvisation — it is the layered cycles of beats, often involving unusual meters (say, 7, or 11), that most easily define his sound and influence. Pianist Iyer, who met Coleman during a Bay Area workshop, before his own career really got off the ground, shared that sense of Coleman’s influence as empowering:

I was inspired by the fact that his music has an animating force that’s deeper than pure aesthetics. What sits behind it is this real global perspective on music and life, which sounds grandiose but it’s really about working very hard, doing research and having a purpose. It’s not just that you can connect the dots by playing 7 or 11 beats in a measure, it’s coming from a place that’s in dialogue with what those rhythms feel like and relate to, and in taking a stand about what sort of music you’re making. He really has a point of view about what he does and why he does it.

Trumpeter Finlayson, who has played with Coleman for more than a decade, first met the saxophonist while in high school.

Playing and studying with Steve, you learn what’s behind certain musical ideas,” Finlayson said. “There are the technical elements, and that’s one level to absorb. But then there are the things that are less apparent, things you have to be close to the music to grasp. This is priceless information to be privy to.

The last time I spoke with Coleman, I asked him if it was hard to find the right players through the years for your music, which is, to say the least, demanding.

It isn’t very hard to find musicians who are technically proficient,” he said. “The difficulty is more in finding musicians who don’t have preconceived notions and, maybe more important, can focus on broader concepts that then give rise to the music — on life, really. Honestly, it’s not all that significant for a musician to understand my music — or even for you to, when it comes right down to it. Naturally, there are certain things you need to grasp if you’re to write about it, and even more that someone in my band needs to get with. But it’s really more a question of opening up to the music, of feeling it and internalizing it which is a very different mode of understanding. Feeling music is not stressed in the way that it should be.

Through the years in our conversations and email exchanges, Coleman has often posed a question I hadn’t thought to ask: What did John Coltrane think of James Brown? What would music sound like if there never were a U.S. embargo of Cuba? I don’t know if Coleman’s new CD, “Functional Arrhythmias,” has the healing properties that Milford Graves hopes to uncover. I do know that it makes my pulses move a bit differently than they ordinarily would and my mind wonder about things it might otherwise not.

Besides, it just feels good.