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Steve Coleman: 'Harvesting' Funky, Brainy Jazz

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.

Steve Coleman has always connected with singers. Coming up in the 1980s, he worked with the veteran Abbey Lincoln and fellow newcomer Cassandra Wilson. Jen 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 Nørgård. 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, but you can find out more about the undertone series here and how Coleman uses it here.

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 modern 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.

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. 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.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.