The audience at the Jazz Gallery is under Steve Coleman’s spell. The alto saxophonist, casually dressed in jeans and a backwards baseball cap, sits center stage at the scruffy upstairs club in New York’s SoHo district, leading two of his band members—pianist David Virelles and guitarist Miles Okazaki—through alien-sounding renditions of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” The people in the club’s cramped chairs sit in rapt attention, following Coleman’s urgings to clap and sing along with the musicians. Then something unusual happens: Coleman calls one young spectator up to sit with Virelles at the piano, and encourages others to stand onstage behind him and watch.
This is Coleman’s gig, but it isn’t a concert. On a Monday night in March, he’s conducting his weekly master class and workshop, “Steve Coleman Presents,” for musicians of all instruments and skill levels. Coleman has spent the evening discussing negative chords, a system of his own design in which chords are built by stacking notes downward, not upward, from the root. He and his musicians first reharmonize the changes on “All the Things You Are,” then reconstruct the tune itself using the same concept. “You’re gonna work out the bridge,” he tells the kid he’s brought onto the bandstand, and for the next hour they deconstruct the standard’s B-section note by note, looking to retain the compositional structure but turn it upside down as the remainder of the class—about 20 people, mostly young, some with instruments—looks on.
“What you’re really doing with this is to alter your perspective,” he explains as the kid picks away at the keys. “You’re just looking at the same thing from a different angle, holding up a magnifying glass to see why things work and why they don’t. And you don’t have to stop tonight; you can keep doing it, because it presents situations you’ve never been in before and possibilities you’ve never even thought of.”
For Coleman, this isn’t just a study tip: It’s a manifesto. The saxophonist has spent three decades finding new vantage points from which to examine and enrich the jazz canon. In the process, he has quietly influenced generations of musicians; his ideas, once viewed as offbeat and inaccessible, have become crucial to the music’s contemporary language. Because of this his forthcoming CD, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi), sounds fresh and vital while also of a piece with its time and place.
And it isn’t accidental that Coleman chooses a jazz club as his classroom. For him, performance and instruction are often indistinguishable. “I think of myself like a [West African] griot,” he says. “Like a person that’s documenting something in music, telling a story and passing information down.”
His musicians agree. “He’s a born teacher,” says Jonathan Finlayson, Coleman’s trumpeter. “He’ll expound on anything you can ask him about. And he’s absolutely full of information of all kinds.”
“To me, Steve’s as important as Coltrane,” says pianist Vijay Iyer, another of Coleman’s protégés. “He has contributed an equal amount to the history of the music. He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists.”
The rest of this feature can be found in the June 2010 issue of JazzTimes.