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Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

Ian Patterson By

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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 and pianist/composer Ahmad Jamal, 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 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's music. I've met people who've hated it. It's unpredictable.

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