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.