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Interviews

Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

By Published: February 20, 2012
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.


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