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Before & After with Steve Coleman

Finding value in any style or sound

Steve Coleman (photo: Tracy Collins)
Steve Coleman (photo: Tracy Collins)
Steve Coleman

Sharing almost three hours of music and conversation with alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, 56, it becomes strikingly clear that he finds something of value in any style or sound he hears. Not that he doesn’t have his opinions; he does. But he listens long, often to an entire track, before commenting, and is less concerned with identifying players and tunes than with considering recordings as both individual statements and part of shared traditions. A seasoned producer with more than 20 recordings as a leader-his latest, Functional Arrhythmias (Pi), a studio album featuring the newest edition of his longrunning quintet, Five Elements, was released in March-he can be particular about production values. Coleman’s reputation as a teacher, a role he’s served in official and informal bases, is well earned. To him, every performance carries a lesson or story.

Appropriately, this Before & After was conducted at New York University, in a space and with technical support provided by the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

1. Yosvany Terry

“Summer Relief” (from Today’s Opinion, Criss Cross). Terry, alto saxophone; Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Osmany Paredes, piano; Yunior Terry, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; Pedrito Martinez, percussion, principal voice. Ensemble vocals. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: The first person that jumped to mind was Gonzalo [Rubalcaba], but then it didn’t seem like there was enough piano to be him. I mean, he has a lot of chops and I just didn’t hear enough, you know? When the horns came in I thought it maybe was Yosvany Terry, but then I thought I haven’t heard him live in a long time, and I’m one of those people that doesn’t buy the records of people who are alive-I go and hear them. And the chant sounded like [Pedrito] Martinez’s voice.

In the beginning, when they did the abacuá thing, that narrowed it down. There’s only a certain group of people on the scene that would even know about that, and who would blend it with this kind of thing. Because with most of the guys who are Cuban and stayed in Cuba, it would be more traditional. So I thought it was some Cuban-American cats. The swing part I wasn’t that into. The rest of it I dug. They all seemed to be comfortable with different rhythms and different time spans, the way they flowed in and out of them.

AFTER: I haven’t heard Yosvany in a long time. There were a couple of smear things that he did that [made me think] it might be him, a couple of ways that he bent some notes. He sounds different, more contained. When you’re young, you tend to-the best expression I can use is “shoot your wad,” to do everything all at once. He used to play full-on all the time and now this is much more measured.

The thing about Cuba is that they have a really good music-education system down there, and they have a lot less distractions, no Internet or iPod apps and all that. So people just practice, practice, practice, and they have a ridiculous amount of chops. The trumpet players can all play high, the piano player is all over the place, everybody is into this fast thing. I’ve talked to David Virelles and all these guys, and one of the things they have to learn when they come to the U.S. is how to temper all of that. This was true with Yosvany, Gonzalo, Dafnis Prieto and [alto saxophonist] Roman Filiu.

I first went to Cuba in the mid-’90s and individual players had come down, but they told me we were the first band to come down there in years. We hung out and did this kind of meshing thing, interfacing with these musicians. They were hungry for information. They couldn’t even get CDs other than popular things like Chick Corea, some fusion things, Wynton Marsalis. They didn’t know about Henry Threadgill.

That’s when I met most of these guys, Yosvany in particular. Like Mario Bauzá was to Dizzy, Yosvany was to me-not just the musical bridge but linguistically. I don’t speak Spanish and he was already somewhat familiar with my music. And I was dealing with these folkloric musicians from Matanzas and he could speak to them. Yosvany was the right person for all of that-his father is a folkloric musician. I don’t think I could have done anything without him.

2. Count Basie Orchestra

“Fantail” (from The Complete Atomic Basie, Roulette Jazz). Basie, bandleader, piano; Neal Hefti, arranger; Wendell Culley, Snooky Young, Thad Jones, Joe Newman, trumpets; Henry Coker, Al Grey, Benny Powell, trombones; Marshall Royal, Frank Wess, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Frank Foster, Charles Fowlkes, saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Sonny Payne, drums. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: In the very beginning I thought it was Basie, but then the horns came in and they sounded too modern for the period I was initially thinking of. So it’s not Basie from the late ’30s to ’40s. Then the saxophone solo started, and it sounded like this cat named John Jackson, so maybe it’s somebody like Basie, like Jay McShann or somebody who’s emulative of that. But the feel of the rhythm section sounds more authentic to me so I didn’t think it was somebody outside of that era. I went all the way around and came back to Basie. I don’t know who played that alto solo. I could hear some very slight Bird things in there, but just trying to figure it out in terms of influence, I also could hear something older than that.

AFTER: I would never have guessed Frank Wess, and I’ve played with him too. Clifford Jordan was the first cat to explain this to me, that there’s a difference between guys who learned to play using the same sources as Bird and guys who learned from listening to Bird’s records.

I got to play with some of these older guys too. I played a lot with Slide Hampton when he had a big band and Wess was playing first saxophone, and Thad Jones, who of course is connected to the same Basie period as this track. Thad went back when Basie died and led the band for a minute but that didn’t work out too well. The older cats, like Freddie Green, rebelled.

3. Kenny Garrett

“J. Mac” (from Seeds From the Underground, Mack Avenue). Garrett, alto saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Nat Reeves, bass; Ronald Bruner, drums; Rudy Bird, percussion. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Generally speaking, I’m not really into this thing, only because Trane, Elvin [Jones] and them did this and did it well. Whenever you have somebody that has such an enormous impact, then you have a lot of other people that sort of live in that area for many years after. That happened with Charlie Parker, and other people. It’s not a knock on the musicians-that’s normal. But there’s a million people out there that play like this nowadays, in this general area. So I listen for other things beyond the actual style-how somebody is playing, what’s happening rhythmically.

The first thing I noticed was how good these musicians are, and the cat who impressed me the most was the piano player. I mean, he had the most rhythmic variety and feel, and a kind of strength. If I made a guess, I would say Kenny Kirkland. The saxophone player is definitely somebody in Kenny Garrett’s area. If it’s Kenny, it could be him early on, not more recent, because I’ve heard him be more varied than what I’m hearing here. But it could be somebody that’s just on Kenny’s thing.

AFTER: This is Kenny from last year? [laughs] Tone-wise, it sounded like Kenny right away, the smearing and all that. There are some patterns that he’s playing over and over, and I thought Kenny wouldn’t do that now. And who’s on piano? Benito Gonzalez? I never heard of this cat. At least I usually know the names. He sounded good. Where’s Kenny getting them from? I’m going to have to look that up.

4. Max Roach Featuring

Anthony Braxton

“Dance Griot” (from Birth and Rebirth, Black Saint). Roach, drums; Braxton, alto saxophone. Recorded in 1978.

BEFORE: I have no idea at all who this is. The only saxophone player that comes to mind is Byard Lancaster. The drummer, there are some things I like, things that remind me of this guy I played with, Doug Hammond. I love some of the stuff that the drummer is doing. He sounds like an older cat only because of the way he’s playing the bass drum: four-on-the-floor, with various distributed rhythmic playing. There was a point when the saxophone was doing this pointillistic stuff and the drummer was doing these accents and rhythms against it. I really liked that. The recording is not that great. I would say it was made in the ’70s, as far as the way they’re playing.

AFTER: Really? That does not sound like Max Roach. If it’s Max then you’re saying that was Braxton? It was Braxton. Wow. The recording was horrible though-Black Saint? I did this Winds of Manhattan thing with Sam Rivers and they really butchered the sound of that recording. It was almost like they turned on the tape and that was it.

Even knowing it’s Anthony, I still wouldn’t believe it. Braxton’s playing in time and it’s too tonal for him. Braxton’s usually all over the place and there’s a lot more, what’s the word? Effects. Maybe it’s because he’s playing with Max; on this cut I hear Braxton moving more toward Max than Max moving toward Braxton. That makes sense because Max is the older guy, like when Coltrane played with Duke. Same thing: Coltrane moved more toward Duke because it’s Duke. You give respect.

5. Earl Bostic

“Up There in Orbit” (from Dance Music From the Bostic Workshop, King). Bostic, alto saxophone; Johnny Gray, Allan Seltzer, guitars; Claude Jones, organ; Johnny Pate, bass; Isaac “Redd” Holt, drums; Frank Rullo, percussion. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: [laughs] That’s great. You can move on if you want. I just wanted to hear it all the way through. Me and some friends were listening recently to Joshua Redman and talking about [Redman’s] technique. Then we got into an Earl Bostic conversation, talking about how incredible this cat was.

AFTER: Some cats in Chicago first told me about him, and then I read Coltrane talking about him. I don’t even know what to say about this recording. It’s like some alien stuff.

That’s fitting. The name of the track is “Up There in Orbit,” from 1958.

Some cats thought it was tricks, but it’s like Art Tatum on piano-an incredible control of the saxophone. I mean, it’s so much stuff. I’ve always thought of Earl Bostic as-and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way-an extension of vaudeville. Today we have that when guys do splits on the stage and throw the mic down, James Brown or Prince or whoever. That’s always going to be popular; people are always going to respond. But regardless of all that, he’s killin’ on the horn.

I think Bostic was born in 1914 [ed.-1913] and he was doing all of this altissimo stuff early. Of course, playing in that range existed in the French classical saxophone tradition, so it’s not like people didn’t know about it, and whatever you want to call it, harmonics, over-blowing, Bostic took it further. What he does on this recording is ridiculous.

Trane took something from Bostic, though he didn’t go to that extreme. Imagine hearing that every night, sitting in the band while the bandleader was doing that-that’s gotta have an effect. You look at the instrument differently and say, well, I had no idea.

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