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Interviews

Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language
By Published: February 20, 2012
Saxophonist Steve Coleman's The Mancy of Sound (Pi Recordings, 2011) was one of the records of 2011. Thematically and structurally challenging on the one hand, dynamic and funky on the other, the music's contrasts reflect Coleman's view of the world, in all its complexity and simplicity. Coleman's fierce intellect carries simple logic, wrapped in many-layered waves of knowledge; so, too, the music on this recording may seem overwhelming at first, until repeated listening gradually unveils the simple truths within. For Coleman, it's all a matter of communication with his fellow musicians, where the notes played are the symbols of a language that is universal, but which allows for highly personal individual expression.

Coleman accepts, with a philosophical shrug, that not everybody will get his music and that no two people will experience the music in exactly the same way. That, Coleman surmises, is language for you. Like pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
and pianist/composer Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
, Coleman is reluctant to call himself a jazz musician, as his biggest challenge, he says, is people's preconceptions. He is also reticent to go into depth about the philosophical inspiration behind a lot of his music, so as not to be misunderstood and, probably in equal measure, so as not to confound. Considering how few people are au fait with the cycles of the moon, or share the saxophonist's burning interest in astrology, astronomy, ancient Chinese mystical traditions or geomancy—some of the areas that inspire Coleman's compositions—this reticence comes across more as humility.

The Mancy of Sound is the next island on Coleman's musical journey, linked by a bridge with Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010). For Coleman, all the recordings he has made during these last three decades are part of an ever-evolving continuum but are, at the same time, snapshots in time. The Mancy of Sound is a marvelous snapshot, and it reconfirms that Coleman is at the forefront of innovative, contemporary composition—call it jazz or what you will. His influence is significant. Pianist Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
said of Coleman: "It's hard to overstate Steve's influence. He's affected more than one generation, as much as anyone since John Coltrane. ... What sits behind his influence is this global perspective on music and life."

Coleman's global perspective on music and life has seen him travel to Cuba, Brazil, Africa and India on numerous study tours to further his knowledge of music and, thus, of the world he lives in. It's all there in the music, but only Coleman himself knows what the sound symbols represent; the rest of us are free to draw our own conclusions. However, the music speaks boldly and rather beautifully for itself.

All About Jazz: You have looked away from Western culture for many years, philosophically, spirituality and musically, but the world is increasingly dominated by Western culture. Do you ever feel you are swimming against the tide?

Steve Coleman: Well, I don't really worry about the tide [laughs]. You just have to follow what you believe in. I'm not concentrating on the tide of public opinion or other musicians. To be honest, I don't think about that. Anybody following their own thing will probably be against the tide, because the tide is people who are following each other.

AAJ: Your philosophy, your outlook on life and your music are one and the same, but is someone who is listening to The Mancy of Sound who is unaware of what inspired the music—geomancy and lunar phases—at a disadvantage?



SC: First of all, nobody is going to understand it like me. Secondly, everybody understands differently. This is even true with spoken language; two people can listen to a speech of Malcolm X, Barack Obama or Tony Blair, and they can hear two different things and interpret it in two different ways. This is even truer with music; each person has personal experiences. It depends on what kind of music they listen to, what kind of person they are, where they come from; it depends on so many different things. Each person has a personal experience of the music, and it's not going to be the same for two different people.

When a critic writes a review about a record and says, "I like this; I like that," he's really only talking about his or her personal opinion. Everybody else might feel something different. Nobody's really at a disadvantage. One listener might be 15 years old and another 54 years old, and at very different places in their lives. It's impossible for everybody to get the same message or to hear the same thing in any music. What they hear is more dependent on who they are. For example, somebody who listens to Lady Gaga all the time is obviously going to have a difficult time with this music. And people have different philosophical points of view; I wouldn't expect former President Bush to like my music, because philosophically he's in a different place. So a lot of things influence what people hear and how they interpret it. It's not something a musician can control. I've met people who don't like [saxophonist/composer] John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's music. I've met people who've hated it. It's unpredictable.

AAJ: The Mancy of Sound sounds like a follow-up to Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi recordings, 2010). What, for you, is the connection between these two works?

SC: The real connection is me, but they are both follow-ups to everything I've ever done in my life. Of course, they are more like each other because they are close together in time. From my point of view, everything is continuous. It's a continuous picture of where we are at a particular moment in time. It's like a snapshot. I did my first public record in 1985, and to my ears these more recent recordings are very different than that first recording. I know that, as a person, I am not in the same place as I was at that time. At 55 you're not the same as when you were 15—the same person, but not the same, because hopefully you've progressed.

AAJ: From the recording of Harvesting Semblances and Affinities to The Mancy of Sound, had your initial concept of the music changed?

SC: Yes, it had, but my belief is that changes like that are imperceptible to most people unless they are very close to you. That's my general feeling. In other words, if John Coltrane makes a record in February 1954 and then he makes a record in June 1954, he's probably grown a lot but most people won't hear it. I believe that people only see things when they are at a distance from it. They see change more when at a distance. And you have to remember that some people may have listened to The Mancy of Sound before they listened to Harvesting Semblances and Affinities. Not everybody is following me in the same way.

For some people, it might be their first Steve Coleman record. One person may have been following you for a long time, another person may have stopped following you, and another person might just have been introduced to your music with the last record. Maybe they got introduced to the music at a concert, and then they went and grabbed a record. But the record was done years before the concert. You have a lot of people coming at the music from different perspectives. People listen to things in a different order. I can't expect them to understand it the way I understand it, because everything is moving forward in time for me.

AAJ: One obvious change between Harvesting Semblances and Affinities and The Mancy of Sound is the increased presence of percussion, particularly on the "Odu Ifa Suite." Why did you use both Tyshawn Sorey
Tyshawn Sorey
Tyshawn Sorey
b.1980
drums
and Chris Persad Group, The Dautaj, Marcus Gilmore , Coquito, Fri, not to mention Ramon Garcia Perez on percussion?

SC: I've used a lot of percussion before—even more percussion than is on this record. I'm very interested in rhythms. I've used entire percussion groups, and I've done everything from duets with me and a drummer to eight or nine percussionists, for example. And around the time we did this recording I was using the same two drummers, Marcus and Tyshawn, on tour. For me it's normal, but, like I said, I'm the only one who sees all of these things.

AAJ: For sure, but the question stems more from the fact that these two records are like siblings in many ways, and it seems that maybe something had changed conceptually in your approach to the composition in the time between the two records.

SC: The message of the two is different because they are two different subjects. The second one has a heavy influence of Ifa; I don't know if you know what Ifa is.

It's a West African philosophical system. The other record, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, is more—it's hard to say, but let's say astronomical, astrological. I don't like to talk too much about these things because a lot of the time people don't know what I'm talking about. But the second record, The Mancy of Sound, is based on geomancy. Ifa is a type of geomancy, so it's more Earth based, whereas the other record is dealing with cycles in the sky, of the moon and all that kind of stuff. So, for me, the two are completely different in terms of the subject matter, heaven and earth. But, like I said, they're not that far apart in time in terms of when they were recorded, and I'm the same guy. I'm only going to change so much in six months. I don't expect everybody to hear how big the change is. I think, on the second record, because of the Earth-like nature of the subject, it's smoother, in a way, for the listener. I'm kind of guessing, because I have a different perspective than the listener; I'm the creator of the music.

AAJ: Yes, particularly on the Odu Ifa Suite, there seems to be a little bit of the spirit of [pianist/composer] Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
. Is that in the ballpark?

SC: Well, I'm influenced by Duke anyway, but not in an obvious way. If you compare Duke's influence on me to somebody like [trumpeter/composer] Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
, you know, Marsalis structures his music the same way that Duke did—similar voicings, very similar instrumentation and so on, so it's really easy to say he's influenced by Duke Ellington because there's a certain amount of emulation going on. There's an attempt to try to keep the sound close to Duke Ellington. I'm not trying to keep the sound close to Duke Ellington, but I've always been influenced by him. He's one of my models. I'm always influenced by him, and I'm always aware of him, but I wasn't consciously thinking on this record, "OK, now I'm going for a Duke sound."

AAJ: Not at all. It was an impression, a feeling, something in the rhythms. Does it get tiresome for you to repeatedly be asked about the concepts behind the music? Do you wish people would talk only about the music?

Steve Coleman (center) and Five Elements

SC: I go back and forth. I go through periods where I don't write any liner notes at all, and then people complain and say, "Man, you should talk a little bit about the music." Some people write in and complain to me, "It would be nice if we knew what you were thinking." Then you write something and people complain the other way. They say, "Well, I don't really want to hear all this; I just want to listen to the music" [laughs]. Some people want to know everything—guys who aren't even musicians, but they want to know everything: "How did you do this? What were you thinking? How was the moon influencing the music?" Then there are people who want to know absolutely nothing. Maybe they have an image of me in their head and they consider me a so-called jazz artist and they believe a certain—you could almost say—a myth of what so-called jazz is, and if you say anything you disturb their image; you disturb their image of some black cat who just woke up one day playing the blues, or whatever. That's their image of the music, and they want to keep that image, they want to keep that myth. And if you destroy that they say, "Oh, I could have enjoyed that music if it wasn't for the liner notes" [laughs].

AAJ: You can't win.

SC: Most people are somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. It really doesn't matter what you do. I remember when I was younger, when I was a student, I would buy a [John] Coltrane album and I'd think, "Man, I wish he had talked about the music." You really can't win. It's not like there's just one person out there. There are a lot of different people from different cultures with different attitudes to everything, and somebody is always going to be dissatisfied. Somebody's always going to say, "The music's too creative" or "The music's not creative enough" or "The songs are too long," and somebody else will say, "The songs are too short" [laughs]. There's no way to please everybody, and I've been hearing it for years from people. You know, we play these concerts and one guy will come up to me and say, "Why did you play so long?" and then the next person will say, "I wanted to hear more, then you guys stopped." You can't win, but if you follow the people, you're going to end up like [saxophonist] Kenny G
Kenny G
Kenny G
b.1956
sax, soprano
, you know?

AAJ: Guitarist Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
said in an interview that in a certain sense, he's indifferent to what people think about his music, as he's primarily writing it for himself. Can you relate to that sentiment at all?

SC: I feel like I'm communicating with people, just like I'm talking to you now. I hope I'm not talking to myself, I'm talking to you. When I play music, I feel music is mainly a form of communication, and so, yes, I feel like I'm talking to people. If I was playing for myself, I would never come out the house. I'd just stay in my room and do my thing. However, when I'm expressing myself to people, I feel like I have to be honest and express what I really feel. I'm who I am. I'm not Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, I'm not Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
b.1969
trumpet
, I'm not Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
b.1950
keyboard
, I'm not Elton John. Some people might appreciate that—though it's always going to be a small number because it's not pop music—and many will not. But the same would be true if you just stood up on a stage and started talking—some people will dig it, some people will not.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about the music on The Mancy of Sound. On the first track, "Jan 18," there's a lyric sung by Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu
b.1978
vocalist
, which says: "Nature's call for progression with no fear or aversion, teaching the value of immersion." Can you talk about the genesis of this lyric?

SC: That's the poetry of a Brazilian writer. Her name is Patrícia Magalhães. Almost all of the singing on the album that is words is poetry of hers that we set to music. It's mostly a collaboration. She asked me what I was trying to express with the music. She knows the music very well. She was there during the creation process, as was Jen also. Then Patrícia put her impressions into words. It's her impression of my impression in words, so it's a collaboration.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements is not just me; it's a collaboration between me and everybody who's in the group. I don't really control the bassist's contribution or the drummer's contribution or the trumpet player's contribution; it's their impression of what's going on, and they're making decisions. It's exactly the same with the poetry. Patrícia was making her own decisions. I didn't tell her, "Oh, don't write that" or "Don't write this." It was her contribution, in the same way the trumpet player makes his contribution. In a way, your question, for me, is almost the same as: "During the trumpet solo Jonathan [Finlayson] played this; what did he mean?" I really have no way of knowing exactly what he meant. It's a democratic music; when I write music, I leave room for the other people to make their statements. That's the concept of the music. There's room for them to make their statements.

It's different than if I write a piece and an orchestra plays it, where the composer is the boss and the other people follow instructions. In this music, it's not exactly the same. I have a statement that I'm trying to make, and other people are making their concurrent statements. We don't always know what each other is saying. Just like having a group conversation, we respond to each other, but we don't always know what's going to come out of another person's mouth or instrument. So it's a dialogue, and in this case the poetry is part of that dialogue. Sometimes Patrícia writes things that are very mysterious to me, and I say, "What did you mean by that?" But it can go the other way also. She can say, "You played this; what are you trying to say?" [Laughs.] There are things that I do that are mysterious to her, and it's the same for the other people in the group. It's just that with words, you understand the words in a more direct way, because you speak English, and therefore it jumps out at you more than, let's say, a phrase that somebody might play. The tendency is not to take a musical phrase and think, "What did they mean?"

The way we perform music and the way I've been taught music, by the older cats, [saxophonists] Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
1924 - 1982
saxophone
, Von Freeman
Von Freeman
Von Freeman
1922 - 2012
sax, tenor
and Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
—they always emphasize that the purpose of the music is to tell a story. I know today that critics are not thinking about that, but that's the element that I'm thinking about the most: "What am I trying to say?" not "How cool is this scale, how cool is this rhythm." Those aren't the main things. Those are just tools to get to the storytelling. When I talk to you, I'm not thinking about adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions; I'm only thinking about what I'm trying to say to you. Yes, I'm using adverbs and pronouns and all these things, but they're just tools to transfer my thoughts to you. I look at music that way. I'm sorry for taking so long to answer your question.

AAJ: Thank you for such a comprehensive answer. You've surely answered many people's questions about the lyrics.

SC: I also want to say that the singing in the Yoruba-like language was done by the percussionist, who we call Sandy, but whose real name is Ramon Garcia Perez. Sandy's from Cuba, where they call this language Lucumi, and I don't know what he's saying either, although he knew the subject matter that we were dealing with. So what Sandy is saying is related to the same story that the rest of us are dealing with. This is the way we work; it's a collaboration.

AAJ: What is the subject matter?

SC: Each song has a kind of energy corresponding to an Orisha, and Sandy's reciting a traditional expression associated with that Orisha. It comes from a tradition of sayings. In Christianity you would have the sayings of Jesus, or in Buddhism they would have the sayings of Buddha, and what Sandy is dealing with is based on the philosophical system of the Yoruba.

AAJ: On "Jan 18," the multiple, interlocking voices sound like a choir, where everybody's on the same page but where there's a lot of improvisation going on.

SC: Yeah, we do a lot of collective improvisation. I wouldn't say choir; it's more like a group of people talking, where at different times different people take the lead while other people are making comments. It's like a collective dialogue. Or it's like a basketball team, where you have five guys on a team who are all moving in different directions, but they're working together towards the same goal.

AAJ: On that track, there seems to be a constant pulse going, first with Thomas Morgan's bass and then later with Tim Albright's trombone. Could you talk about this element of the rhythm, please?

SC: The reason that you can hear that clearly sometimes is because it's modal, because it's played, for the most part, on only one or two pitches. But actually, there are two main rhythmic tracks—we call them rhythmic modes—that have very particular rhythms, and they run in counterpoint to each other, although they go together in rhythmic harmony. They were conceived to go together. What you're referring to is the lower one, and it's easier to hear because it's played by the bass, or by the trombone sometimes, and the pitches don't change so much. But the melody also has the same kind of rhythm, but it's a different rhythm. It's harder to hear because it's played higher by the melodic instruments, and the pitches are changing a lot more. So people hear that as melody; they don't hear it as rhythm. However, it is rhythm, in the same sense as the lower voice you're talking about, though the ear doesn't pick it up the same way because of the range, the changing pitches, and some of the pitches are sustained. When you put something in the drums or in the bass, then people feel it more in their body. It's more felt, coming from the ground. Depending on your training or what you normally listen to, you might only hear one of these rhythms, but there are two main rhythms that are really strong, and then the harmony is kind of floating in between the two main rhythms. That's how it was conceived.

AAJ: Different tracks stand out for different reasons, and "Formation 1" and "Formation 2" stand out for their striking harmonics, but also due to the absence of bass and drums. What was your approach to these compositions?

SC: Our approach, with or without drums and bass is very similar. For example, when I play solo, if I just pick up my horn and start practicing, I always hear the entire group in my head. But, of course, anybody listening to me would not hear what I hear in my head. Even though we're playing with just three horns and a voice, in our minds we hear the other voices. People listening don't hear the invisible form. In this group, there are always invisible forms that the musicians are following, even if they are spontaneously created. One of the difficulties I had when I first started listening to Charlie Parker was that I didn't know the invisible forms that were the foundation of what they were playing, so it just sounded like a lot of crazy notes at first. It didn't make any sense to me.

The thing is, the nature of these invisible forms change over time; they're not the same in 2011 as they were in 1950 or 1920. If I pick up my horn and start playing, somebody who's close to me, who knows the music—somebody like [pianist] Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
or Jen Shyu or Jonathan Finlayson—they're probably going to hear the form that what I'm playing is based on. Somebody who's not so familiar with this music may not necessarily hear these forms, and this has always been a part of the music. There are still elements of John Coltrane's music that the general public does not understand at all—what they say is so-called free jazz. Coltrane wasn't playing free. He was never playing free. People who were reviewing his music understood the music as being free, and that is what they wrote in those music history books, but I realized when I was studying that music that it's not free, what Trane was doing. Trane was doing the same thing he was doing before. And in interviews, he said he was doing the same things he was doing before. But that's not the way the so-called jazz historians heard it. So sometimes people don't know.

What we're doing on "Formation" is the same as on the other compositions. There are forms and structure that are at the foundation of what we are playing; we call them musical rooms that we're inside of. Now, if I'm playing the flute, it's going to sound very different—the impression that the sound leaves on a person is very different. So mainly what your question is dealing with is the impression. The composition itself is not really different, and this is one of the things I learned from Duke Ellington, because he was a master arranger. He could arrange things in different ways, and it would give different impressions, even if he was using the same material. This is something that happens in European art music, for example in an orchestra, where they have a lot of instrument colors, and they can arrange those colors in a lot of ways. The impression may vary greatly depending upon how they arrange the colors, when actually the structural elements of the different sections of the music might not be very different.

AAJ: The Odu Ifa Suite, according to the liner notes, was originally created for singer Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
b.1955
vocalist
. Why did you not use her on the record?



SC: For many reasons, some of them having nothing to do with the music. First of all, she has her own group, second, it's too expensive, and third, she's not working with us enough and we would need to do a lot of rehearsing. We do things together once in a while, but she's mainly concerned with her own group. The first time we did it live in concert, Cassandra was the singer. Jen [Shyu] was singing also, but Cassandra was the main singer. But by the time we got to the recording, you know, she's very popular and very busy, so it's not always possible to hook these things up, so it was just easier to do it with the group that was always working together. Sometimes it's a question of logistics. But the idea to do an Ifa suite was originally Cassandra's idea, back when we did the music in concert, although I composed the music. So some people might say, "Oh, you should have used Cassandra Wilson," but it's not that easy. As a person becomes more popular it becomes more difficult to work with them.

AAJ: Jen Shyu does a truly great job. You've played with Shyu for quite a few years now, and she brings a certain indefinable spirituality to The Mancy of Sound. What do you like about her approach to music?

SC: Dedication, she works very hard, she's extremely talented, has excellent technique, she composes music, and she's very intelligent. I could keep going [laughs]. It's a long list. She gets the job done. She's a hard worker, and I like people who work hard. I could say the same thing about Jonathan Finlayson, the trumpet player. I started working with Jonathan almost two years before I worked with Jen, and it's almost the same kind of thing: talented, hard working, intelligent, fantastic composer and improviser, et cetera. I mentioned the fact that they compose because that is important. People who compose bring another quality to the music—a kind of panoramic point of view, in terms of how the music can progress.

AAJ: On The Mancy of sound the music is seemingly complex on the one hand, and seemingly simple at the same time. Do you see a relationship between complexity and simplicity in the music?

SC: Yeah, yeah. In one word: life. I'm looking outside the window right now, and I'm seeing exactly the same thing as you're describing. I'm seeing some things that seem to be very simple, like the wind blowing in the trees, birds, and things like this, yet at the same time we know there is no end to the complexity—absolutely no end. Nature is probably my biggest inspiration for the music, because I really try to model my music on the same kind of—I really don't know what to call them—concepts, processes, whatever, that nature is based on. Nature is incredibly beautiful, incredibly complex and incredibly simple. It depends on the individual; if you're a simple person you'll see simple things, and if you're a complex person you'll see complex things. And we attempt to play music that has this same quality. Somebody who wants to just groove and nod their head, OK, there's something there for that person. Another person who has another kind of vibe, there's something else there for that person, too. That's what I'm attracted to in music, and that's what I'm attracted to in life, because it's all there in life and in the music.

AAJ: The four parts of the Odu Ifa Suite represent fire, earth, air and water, and the Suite draws inspiration from the divining and philosophical system of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Would you describe this music as spiritual in nature?

SC: Yeah. The simple answer is yes—spiritual, but by that I don't mean religious.

AAJ: What are the challenges of presenting this music to club owners, festivals, radio and so on? Do you find they are turned off by the concepts that inspired the music?

SC: The biggest challenge is preconception. People have preconceptions about the music because people tend to put things in categories. Once they put it in a certain category then they have a certain expectation. If you hire the New York Philharmonic, then you have an expectation based on the category that kind of music fits in for you, and the way it's supposed to be performed, and the way you're supposed to listen to it. The same thing if you hire Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, and the same thing is true if you hire me: expectation—expectation of what the music is and what it should be. In my case, people think the music is so-called jazz, but I don't think it's jazz. By "people," I mean the music industry. They think it's jazz, and that includes the club owners and the promoters, and so they have a jazz expectation. And different people have different concepts of what they think jazz is. If you play in Amsterdam they might have one concept, and if you play in Australia they might have another. They're all related, but they're all equally wrong, in my case [laughs]. When you don't meet people's expectations, they can be surprised in a positive way or they can be surprised in a negative way.

AAJ: You mentioned Australia. Have you ever studied Australian Aboriginal music and its relationship to history, language and culture?

SC: I'm familiar with it, but I haven't studied it in detail.

AAJ: Are you interested to go down that road at all?

SC: Yeah, I'm curious. I want to go there. I have never been there, and of course there's always a first time, but I haven't got to that yet.

AAJ: Is there another bridge going from The Mancy of Sound to the next Steve Coleman and Five Elements recording?



SC: I have been working on some things recently that have been making a very big impact on my music, in my opinion. I'm not at all sure that the general public will immediately hear this change, but to my mind there's a big change. It would be very difficult to describe the change in words, but it has to do with a kind of flexibility in the way the music is approached. I want to say more spontaneous, however spontaneity is always a part of the music, so that word may be misunderstood. Let's call it a change in the nature of the spontaneity.

AAJ: Maybe the only constant in life is change, and that seems to sum up your musical journey.

SC: This seems to be true to me also, and many times you hear that the one obvious constant in this universe is change. However, change is really movement. Change is the name we give to something when we notice a different quality that is the result of movement. So it is really movement that is the constant. Everything in this universe, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, is in motion, and that motion appears to be of a nature that is both cyclical—in the sense of spirals, not circles—and infinite.

Yeah, I'm very aware of this. My study of cycles—or it would be more accurate to say harmonics—is fundamental to my music. The structure of the physical and metaphysical universe, which humans are part of, is naturally structured in this cyclical manner. But to be conscious of this quality and to deliberately study and harmonize your activities according to these cyclical rhythmic movements—it's my belief that this makes for a more profound expression.

AAJ: At the end of the day, self-expression is what it's all about, isn't it?

SC: Well, I would rather think of it as just expression, not necessarily self-expression, but a kind of collective expression and universal expression. On a certain level, I'm not really sure that the self exists, although it's convenient for us to think from this perspective. When I spoke about nature earlier, I emphasized the word "nature." That was not accidental; I think of nature in somewhat the same manner as many people might think of God. But the word I use is "nature," which for me represents everything, including us, as one holistic, sentient structure. I don't only mean sentient in the sense of being aware or of being able to feel or perceive. My perspective of the so-called laws of the universe is that they are a form of consciousness. I hesitate to call the universe alive because I think that would be misunderstood.

When you look up the word "life" in the dictionary, it is mostly defined by what it is not, and also defined by other terms like death. Or it is defined by circular definitions, where "life" is defined by "alive," which in turn is defined by "living," which is again defined by "alive." This kind of thing occurs when it's not clear what is being referenced; people do not know what life is. In the same way, they don't really know what time is, although we use the words "life" and "time" every day. I have stated before that I believe that our perception of time is based on movement. Regarding life, it is my opinion that if the universe created us and all of the things on Earth that we call living, then the energy and condition that we call life must have already existed, so these laws that created us must themselves be alive—a kind of alive that is larger than what we commonly refer to as "alive."

So this is the main story. It's this quality that I'm trying to express, and music is the symbolic language that is the vehicle for this expression.

Selected Discography

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Mancy of Sound (Pi Recordings, 2011)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010)
Steve Coleman, Invisible Paths: First Scatterings (Tzadik, 2007)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Weaving Symbolics (Label Bleu, 2006)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Lucidarium (Label Bleu, 2004)
Anthony Tidd's Quite Sane, Child of Troubled Times (Cool Hunter Music, 2002)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Resistance is Futile (Label Bleu, 2001)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Sonic Language of Myth (BMG, 1998)
Ravi Coltrane, Moving Pictures (BMG France, 1998)
Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance, Genesis (BMG, 1997)
Abbey Lincoln, Who Used to Dance (Gitanes/Verve, 1997)
The Roots, Illadelph Halflife (DCG/Geffen, 1996)
Steve Coleman & the Mystic Rhythm Society, Myths, Modes and Means (Novus, BMG, 1995)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Def Trance Beat (Novus/BMG, 1994)
M-Base Collective, Anatomy of a Groove (Rebel-XDIW/Columbia, 1992)
Steve Coleman and Dave Holland, Phase Space (DIW Records, 1992)
Cassandra Wilson, Jump World (JMT, 1990)
Dave Holland, Triplicate (ECM, 1988)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Sine Die (Pangaea, 1987)
Gerri Allen, Open to All Sides in the Middle (Minor Music, 1987)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, World Expansion (JMT, 1986)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Motherland Pulse (JMT, 1985)
Chico Freeman, Tangents (Elektra Music, 1984)
Abbey Lincoln, Talking to the Sun (Enja, 1984)
Sam Rivers, Colors (Black Saint, 1982)

Photo Credits

Page 1: David Kauffman
Page 2: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Pages 3, 5: Tracey Collins

Page 4: Sophia Wong

Page 6: Patricia Magalhaes


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Download jazz mp3 “Jan 18” by Steve Coleman
  • Jan 18
  • Steve Coleman
  • The Mancy of Sound