On Steve Coleman, 'Inception' And The Failure To Understand

Steve Coleman i i

A rare sighting of Steve Coleman, photographed in Brazil, without a backwards baseball cap. Tracy Collins hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Collins
Steve Coleman

A rare sighting of Steve Coleman, photographed in Brazil, without a backwards baseball cap.

Tracy Collins

About as soon as I hit "publish," I began to see gaps in my recent short rant essay, titled "You're Not Too Dumb To Like Jazz." In particular, Dan DiPiero points out something which I feel I ought to clarify here. I think he's misreading my intent a little bit, but I'm certainly leaving that possibility open by leaving out a few missing pieces.

Thinking about those lacunae, and how to fill them, dovetails nicely with my thoughts on another collection of music which has captivated me this summer: Steve Coleman's new album Harvesting Semblances And Affinities.


The unifying idea of Coleman's new album, he writes, is "energy harvesting, i.e. the gathering, through musical symbolism, of the energy of particular moments." He describes the opening track as follows:

"Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)" represents the opening energy of this assemblage of compositions. It is a sonic ritual that opens the way and prepares for what is to come. The tricky rhythms, dominated by the number 3, are reminiscent of combined energies of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu-Elegba, the Opener of the Way.

Have a listen to the first part of "Attila 02," before the solos:

Listen

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"Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)," from Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Harvesting Semblances And Affinities [Pi Recordings]. Steve Coleman, alto saxophone; Jen Shyu, vocals; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet, Tim Albright, trombone, Thomas Morgan, bass, Tyshawn Sorey, drums. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Recorded Oct. 19, 2006.

On my own, I'm having trouble figuring out if it has a constant or variable meter, how a pattern of threes can be located in here, what exactly this might have to do with any Orishas. But where I do connect is how well drummer Tyshawn Sorey asserts a groove that is not a groove, how vocalist Jen Shyu declaims atop it all, how the horns are arranged for such maximal color and emphasis, how it all unravels so well before picking up again. There's certainly an energetic mood being conveyed, and I like to think that even when so many of my critical faculties abandon me, I can identify something akin to what Coleman was trying to capture.

I saw a more recent version of Steve Coleman's Five Elements perform this material this year at the Undead Jazzfest. I like this detail that Ben Ratliff captured in his writeup:

Above all, the band was an amazing system. Sweating through my clothes, I heard couple of good musicians behind me — there was almost always one within arm's reach — reacting with kind of sickened wonder. "What is going on up there?," one asked, sounding almost worried. Exactly.

When people say they don't "understand" jazz or are "too dumb" for jazz music — or, conversely, call it "overly intellectual" or "too cerebral" — it's often a euphemism or rationale for not liking a certain strain of it. If we take them at their word, there's a lot to be potentially confused by: Jazz in general is unfamiliar to the average bear, and more complex than your average pop music. So it doesn't make you dumb if you can't immediately dissect a work of jazz. Seems to me you're an above average intellect for even caring enough to engage with it at all.

Here is the missing link: Most people like a lot of music they don't "understand." Musicologically speaking, I certainly can't break down everything I like about any recording I enjoy, or know what inspired it. The best musicians of any genre have a way of transcending this in order to communicate something more human than the artifice of music theory.

A few weeks ago, I broke down the rhythmic foundation of Guillermo Klein's arrangement of "Coplas del Regreso." But even so, there was a lot in that song I wasn't able to decipher into technical terms; more importantly, there remains the fundamental mystery about why those particular combinations were so affecting. (That was the point of that exercise anyway, to muse on its futility.)

Even though I like his new album, I feel like I "understand" even less about Steve Coleman's work. I confess I don't know his discography very well yet. I've met Coleman a few times, but I've never talked to him at length about his music. I wasn't around when M-Base, a philosophical framework he helped devise, was first formulated; I don't know what the critics said about him when he was releasing music on major labels.

I do gather Coleman has studied music in Cuba, Ghana, Senegal, southern India, at IRCAM in Paris. I also know that he is interested in new ways of structuring music — a website and now-defunct blog lays out a few of his ideas about negative space, Greek and medieval modes, symmetry, Charlie Parker and so forth. It's my impression that he likes to devise unconventional structures, from disparate inspirations. But I fully admit that I am generally unfamiliar with what those musical structures are, here or otherwise.

Given all that, this record still exerts such a powerful and mysterious appeal that after nearly three months, I keep reaching for it over and over.


By way of analogy, I think about the summer blockbuster Inception, a fast-paced science-fiction film about implanting an idea within somebody else's dream. That movie was complex! It asked you to accept all these fantasy concepts native only to the world of the movie: shared dreaming, totems, "extraction," the "kick," the idea of an active subconscious, interminable limbo states, etc. The climactic final sequence features, depending on your interpretation of events, three or four different layers of dreams within a dream.

Inception

Dream a little dream for me. Stephen Vaughan hide caption

itoggle caption Stephen Vaughan

It would take a few viewings, and probably a few conversations with director Christopher Nolan, to fully comprehend everything that was going on in Inception, philosophically and technically. (Not to mention the plot holes.) But it wasn't difficult for much of the audience to enjoy at some level: Currently, it enjoys an IMDb user-generated rating of 9.1 out of 10.

Admittedly, the sonic language of Harvesting Semblances And Affinities is certainly less familiar than the visual language of Inception.** But the unfamiliar is not the same as the cerebral. Jazz, and especially stuff like Steve Coleman's music, is saddled with a certain meta-language that implies that the music's appeal is a sort of mental arithmetic game (or worse, posturing of appreciation). It's complex, sure, but in and of itself, that's not the draw.

Jazz fans and musicians don't like the stuff because they enjoy being able to dissect its chord changes, scale modes and time signatures. Those combinations of chord changes, scale modes and time signatures makes them feel something good inside.

That's why words like "brainy," or "highbrow," or this entire lexicon of left-brain appeal is discomfiting. Jazz is generally intricate, sure. But this oughtn't deter from the idea that the music can be for anyone who likes what they hear. In other words, you're not too dumb to like jazz: You're too caught up in thinking that dumb vs. smart is the right way to approach this stuff in the first place.


**I'm not so naive to think you would get comparable sales results if you marketed Steve Coleman's album as widely as Christopher Nolan's movie was. But I do think it's worth trying.

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