Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language
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 everythingguys 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 certainyou could almost saya 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, you know?
AAJ: Guitarist Pat Metheny 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, I'm not Roy Hargrove, I'm not Stevie Wonder, I'm not Elton John. Some people might appreciate thatthough it's always going to be a small number because it's not pop musicand many will not. But the same would be true if you just stood up on a stage and started talkingsome 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, 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, Von Freeman and Charlie Parkerthey 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.