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Interviews

Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

By Published: February 20, 2012
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."


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