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Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

By Published: February 20, 2012
AAJ: The Odu Ifa Suite, according to the liner notes, was originally created for singer Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
. 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.

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