Tracking M-Basics


…one of last year’s improv highlights.

Steve Coleman, who has been producing his distinctive and innovative music for over twenty-five years, could typify the problem of contextualizing jazz artistry in our current era. The basic challenge is this: jazz has been traveling its entrepreneurial epoch for several decades. This has come about as the necessary artistic response to the amped-up vagaries of the music business, a business that, obviously, has been sundered by its own challenges over the last fifteen or so years.

Although I strongly stand against the insipid myth-making and ranking mechanisms that have tended toward making close to arbitrary distinctions about artistic merit, I also understand even intelligible distinctions have become difficult to promote in the non-stop shuffling of artistic ‘profiles’ in the current environment. The requirement, for the adept listener, I would argue is to become a tenacious tracker of singular and committed artists. And, yet, one can’t track them all.

Coleman (bio) has been worth keeping track of right from the beginning when his debut recording in 1985. Motherland Pulse served to introduce his artistry, and, the artistry of Geri Allen, Cassandra Wilson, and, Graham Haynes. It is one of those lantern-like recordings, showing the way, and it came into play right in the midst of the neo-classical jazz frenzy. Coleman at this time was the main creator of the M-Base Collective, a cooperative based in Fort Green that aimed, as I saw it, to reestablish an accessible and innovative original post-bop music that would prove resistant to being hijacked by the dominant culture. In other words, the M-Base instigation was never to become a brand or a fashion.

Coleman’s artistry is very important both for its musical boldness and acuity, and, because he has thought deeply about his music’s context. Subjectively, given the totality of his opus and his thinking about its context, Steve Coleman reminds me of the composer and jazz auteur and teacher George Russell.

Russell, who developed the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, is one of the great masters of the music, and similar to Coleman, he invoked his artistry in a determined effort to advance the music on multiple fronts, as composer and bandleader of course, but also did this by teaching and philosophizing and mentoring. Russell’s own musical context, viewed normatively, stretched the boundaries of what were, during the late fifties, sixties, and seventies, presented as a small range of artistic possibilities. So, that range of traditional, swing, be-bop, hard bop, groove bop, free bop, free music, came under a lot of pressure from Russell’s eclectic and rigorously organized music.

Coleman, like Russell, is onto what I’d term a comprehensive approach. He expands this to consider the political and economic factors bearing down on what it is to work as a creative musician too. This isn’t a necessary move, yet it isn’t surprising either because, unlike the jazz eras of the fifties to the seventies, artistic choices have furiously expanded over the past thirty years, the core jazz audience has aged, and, music business has been transformed radically.

Although I could speak of what Coleman’s M-Base vision seems to me to be, it would be much harder to reduce a description to a concise characterization of what his music sounds like. Coleman has been developing his music in a number of different and innovative directions over more than two decades. It might be possible to string together a bunch of labels too, a time-honored descriptive short cut one can employ, yet Coleman’s music strikes me as having developed far beyond facile touchstones.

Fortunately for those who might want to venture farther into Coleman’s music, he makes it easy. Actually, he is second-to-none as a contemporary artist in putting his music and thoughts in the so-called open source. Just go to M-Base and download the many hours of his music he’s made available for free*, read his writing, especially the Symmetrical Music Concept, and, please consider his seriousness and commitment.

One doesn’t have to agree with Coleman’s pretensions to engage his sonic experiments.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, currently configured with the leader on saxophones, and Jen Shyu, vocals, Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet, David Virelles, keyboards, piano Miles Okazaki, guitar, is one of the most compelling groups in music, period. Coleman has recently been touring as a trio with Shyu and Okazaki. Shyu is especially intriguing in capturing something like the flavor of the spirited high-wire vocalizing of Jeanne Lee.


*Many people have asked me what are my reasons for giving away music for free. Well, why not?  Why should everything always cost something?  For me music is organized sound that can be used as sonic symbols to communicate ideas.  Since my main goal is the communication of these ideas to the people, then why not provide this music for free and thereby facilitating the distribution of this music to the people. (Why Do I Give Away Some of My Music)