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Steve Coleman: 'Harvesting' Funky, Brainy Jazz

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Steve Coleman: 'Harvesting' Funky, Brainy Jazz

Steve Coleman: 'Harvesting' Funky, Brainy Jazz

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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman has been a major force in jazz since the 1980s. A nurturer of young musicians and a composer whose diverse influences include serial procedures derived from modern European composers and the counterpunch rhythms of boxer Floyd Joy Mayweather, Jr.

Coleman's first album in several years with his band Five Elements has been released. Jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead like it.

(Soundbite of song, "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: As a composer, Steve Coleman has been heavily influenced by James Brown's funk. You wouldn't mistake Coleman's band Five Elements for the J.B.'s, but like the Godfather of Soul, he goes in for fast, jittery beats. On Coleman's new album, "Harvesting Semblances and Affinities," Five Elements is powered by a rhythm duo who sync up in a few bands: bassist Thomas Morgan and drum phenom Tyshawn Sorey.

(Soundbite of song, "Beba")

Ms. JEN SHYU (Vocalist): (Scatting)

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu on vocals.

Steve Coleman has always connected with singers. Coming up in the 1980s, he worked with the veteran Abbey Lincoln and fellow newcomer Cassandra Wilson. Shyu's role is slippery here. She's not quite out front and not quite fully aligned with the sextet's three horns. Her main feature is the one non-original tune, Coleman's setting of a choral work by Danish composer Per Norgard. He's an influence on Coleman's own arcane ways of developing material like dipping into the so-called undertone series, which is basically the natural overtone series turned upside down. Don't ask me to explain it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHYU: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WHITEHEAD: If Steve Coleman's music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it's because he's more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood. That's okay, there's room for all kinds of approaches. That adapted choral music prompts us to see Coleman as a composer of contemporary art songs. His pieces often revolve around looping phrases or recurring patterns that overlap or seep into each other. It's the West African drum-choir principle - wheels within wheels can keep rolling indefinitely.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Because Steve Coleman generates his own musical rules, he's had to school musicians in his organizing principles, and his band includes younger players open and smart enough to keep up with the concepts. His new album was actually recorded in 2006, and the musicians involved have already gone on to apply his lessons elsewhere. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey, trombonist Tim Albright and the fine trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson all play in Steve Lehman's octet, with its own complex procedures. Coleman has also influenced a host of younger saxophone players. So, he doesn't just make music that's brainy and funky; he also helps shape players who develop things still further on their own. That's really giving something back to the music.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "Harvesting Semblances and Affinities," the new CD by Steve Coleman and Five Elements on the Pi label.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

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