A New Jazz Suite For Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes

May 3, 2015
Originally published on May 3, 2015 6:20 pm

Is there a modern-day equivalent to Duke Ellington? Or Ornette Coleman?

Who are the people today who think differently about jazz — who have created new forms, and expanded the musical vocabulary?

For 30 years, saxophonist Steve Coleman has been pushing the music forward, traveling the world to collect new sounds, rhythms and ideas. Along the way he's mentored many of the most exciting younger artists in jazz — musicians like Ambrose Akinmusire, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer.

Steve Coleman's new album features a compelling four-part suite for large ensemble. Each movement is named after parts of the body. The suite, and the album, are called Synovial Joints — after the flexible, often complex joints found in places like shoulders, elbows, knees, hips, fingers and wrists.

"I found the most inspiration over my life in nature," Coleman says. "It just kind of hit me in an inspirational way because I saw a lot of musical motion in the way melodies connect and in the way rhythms connect. What I was imagining when I was doing improvisation was what kind of motion the different joints allow, in terms of they connect."

In an interview with NPR's Arun Rath, heard at the above audio link, Coleman talks about the three different groups of musicians that came together for this project, his "camouflage orchestration" and a recent conversation with Sonny Rollins.

"We were talking about being in this kind of meditative state, almost like yoga or something like this, where we play from," Coleman says. "You want to get to the point where you actually don't feel like you're thinking or doing anything — that energy is just working through you. That's the ideal point you want to get to — we don't always get there. What I did with this record was that I played, 20-25 improvisations, and I picked the ones that did the best job of getting to that place. And you can hear it afterward — you know when you've hit it."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Is there a modern day equivalent to Duke Ellington or Ornette Coleman to the people who thought differently about jazz, created new forms, expanded the musical vocabulary? I would nominate Steve Coleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RATH: For 30 years now, he's been pushing the music forward, traveling the world to collect new sounds, rhythms and ideas. And along the way, he's mentored some of the most exciting young artists in jazz.

Coleman practices something he calls spontaneous composition. That means he envisions a concept he wants to write about, puts himself into a kind of trance state and just starts playing. From that improvisation emerged the elements of a formal composition. Steve Coleman's new album features a compelling four-part suite, each named after parts of the body. The suite and the album are called "Synovial Joints."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RATH: Could you explain for non-biology majors what a synovial joint is?

STEVE COLEMAN: (Laughter) I don't know if I can. Most of the joints in our body - you know, elbow, wrist, ankle - all these different joints are what are called synovial joints. We have pivot joints and ball and socket joints and swivel joints and different kinds of things. I've found the most inspiration over my life in nature. And it just sort of hit me in a kind of inspirational way because I saw a lot of musical motion in the way melodies connect, in the way rhythms connect. What I was imagining when I was doing improvisation was what kind of motion the different joints allow in terms of how they connect. The head and neck, which is all one thing, is a combination of different types of motion.

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COLEMAN: That torso, if - you know, if you twist and, you know, swivel and bend back and forth and everything, that's another kind of motion.

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COLEMAN: The hip and shoulders - those are ball and socket joints - and they have a different kind of range of motion.

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COLEMAN: And then the hands and the wrists, you know, I was thinking more about the fingers, actually, and the wrist. You know, that's another kind of motion - more of a back and forth kind of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

COLEMAN: So all you really have to do is focus on these things because we don't focus on them every day. They just things that we don't think about. But once you think about them and you meditate on it, then you start to envision all kinds of things. And because I'm dealing with a moving art, I mean, these things are moving and music is moving. So I started to see connections.

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RATH: One thing that's kind of fascinating about you though is that - I mean, it does sound kind of mystical, the state that you talk about being in. And at the same time, you're also very analytical. I mean, I know you've traveled all over the world collecting scholarship on different musical cultures. It seems like you're very self-conscious and unselfconscious at the same time to do that.

COLEMAN: Well, I recently had a long conversation with Sonny Rollins about this.

RATH: Great saxophonist.

COLEMAN: Oh, of course. And so we were talking about being in this kind of meditative state, almost like yoga or something like this, you know, where we play from. And you want to get to the point where you actually don't feel like you're thinking or doing anything - that somehow energy is just working through you. That's the ideal point you want to get to. We don't always get there.

And what I did with this record is that I played, you know, 20-25 improvisations, and I picked the ones that I thought did the best job of getting to that place. And then - and you can hear it afterwards. You know when you've hit it, you know? And the state that you are at when you're listening back to it though is a very different state than you're in when you're doing it.

RATH: You talked about taking inspiration from nature. And I wonder if you could talk about that in the context of something that you call camouflage orchestration, which is a technique you employ on this album.

COLEMAN: Wow, you must have read the letter notes.

RATH: I did read the letter notes.

(LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: Because you didn't just guess up on that one. Well, I do a lot of sabbaticals every year. And recently, I've been going to Brazil a lot. And while down there, you know, there's a lot of nature. You know, it's the Amazon rain forest and there's a lot of different types of birds and fauna and all kinds of stuff.

And this was something that came to me maybe two years ago while I was down there. I practiced outside a lot because it's very tropical. It's in Bahia, so it's very close to the equator. And they have the most amazing animal sounds and different things.

And this was something - just listening to the animals and the way that they were overlapping in the forest and kind of dimensioning. And it just hit me just listening to that sort of like surround sound.

(LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: I thought, wow, it'd be great if you could orchestrate instruments in that same way as this environment.

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RATH: I'm curious about the process - how this works with your musicians - because when you start out with a spontaneous composition, you're in this kind of very solitary state, right?

COLEMAN: Exactly.

RATH: And then you transcribe and then bring this to people that you work with. How does it work at that point?

COLEMAN: Well, the key to that is picking the right musicians and how long you've been working with them. And then as a group - a big group of musicians I worked with that most of them come from a new music ensemble called the Talea Ensemble - the violin, the viola, trumpet, trombone - instruments most commonly associated with orchestra. And they're top-notch readers in their case. So everything has to be written and has to be very, very precise.

So there's like two groups of musicians who are meeting on that level. And then in addition to that, I had drummers from - hand drummers from Cuba and from Brazil playing congas, bongos, berimbau, talking drum.

So I thought of this as three different groups of musicians coming from three different traditions. One was more of an African diaspora of tradition - our tradition. The one I'm from is also African diaspora tradition, but in a different way. We use European instruments, for example. And then there's the European tradition.

And it was a challenge for me because how do you keep all these people synchronized? How do they communicate when they're used to doing things very differently. Some of the musicians - the classical musicians - are used to a conductor. And we didn't use a conductor. There were a lot of different problems. Tempos is a good example of a solution to one of those problems because it has a lot of tempo changes and a lot of kind of rubato sections. So those were queued from the drums. But I got that idea from Bata players in Cuba of doing these like calls and people responding to the calls, you know? So there's different solutions on different compositions. It's a lot of detail.

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RATH: And while talking about musicians, you know, you were somebody that's had a huge influence on a lot of great musicians. I think about your contemporaries but also, you know, some of the great young jazz musicians like Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa. I could put together a long list. Is there - in all these workshops and all the people you've helped out - is there like one message that you tried to drive home when it comes to spontaneous composition to improvising or?

COLEMAN: Yes, very much so. The main message is listen to the voice inside of you - to know yourself as best as you can and follow that. That may not be a good message for people who want you to go in a certain direction, you know, for the what I call the red-tape crowd - the club owners, managers, promoters - people like that - record company executives. But for creativity, that's my main message - is, you know, it's not to follow me. That's definitely not my message to do what I do. But to do what it is you want to do and what you feel great about - that's the main message.

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RATH: That's composer, bandleader and saxophonist Steve Coleman. His new album with with the Council of Balance is called "Synovial Joints." Steve, thank you very much.

COLEMAN: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.