Thursday, April 29, 2004

He ain't heavy, he's Steve Coleman

Odd Steve Coleman comment on favorite things:

In a way he reminds me of a 'middle weight champion' like Hank Mobley - good, solid and unique, but never quite going for that knockout blow, that over the top thing that demands your attention.

I don't see how the two can be placed in the same category. No disrespect to Mobley, he was a petit maître and wrote a number of excellent tunes, but Coleman is something else.

He's no slouch on his instrument, but one always gets the impression that Coleman is more of a thinker than a player. From the "humble" post-bop beginnings of Motherland Pulse, he went on to develop his M-Base, 80s funk-tinged thing (to uneven results) and has spent the last 10 or so years turning out good-to-great albums for French labels BMG and Label Bleu. I feel that those are the albums where he is heard at his best: his concept is both strong and flexible, allowing him to go from more laid back sessions like The Tao of Mad Phat and On the Rising of the 64 Paths to major works like Genesis (I was listening to this not too long ago and some of the constructions in there are literally breath-taking) and The Sonic Language of Myth, while taking detours through hip-hop (The Way of the Cipher and the much less satisfying The Tale of Three Cities) and Cuban roots music (The Sign and the Seal).

His latest album, Lucidarium, is not quite a major work (by number of participants on any given track), but is infused with an ambition that makes it more involved than just another blowing session (as oddly-metered as it may be). Maybe its something like The Sign and the Seal, but closer to Coleman's core concerns. In any case, it's a huge addition to his existing body of work, one that opens the vistas of micro-tonality. It's really surprising and not at all indicative of someone in a rut, as could easily be the case after 20 years and almost as many albums. Micro-tonality really seems to be a new interest, as even on his previous album, layered voices (to take an obvious example) are treated the same as they were back on, say, Black Science, whereas on Lucidarium they are given this new harmonic/intervallic twist.

I often wonder if his work on BMG and Label Bleu is being heard in the USA at all. Again, in my opinion, it's what he's done since then that shows Coleman at his mature best and will prove most lasting. I know a lot of European musicians have been influenced by his work, but I rarely hear American musicians cite him, or listeners discuss him on forums (and if they do, they're generally ignorant of his 90s/00s stuff). Best of all, you don't even have to take my word for it: go to his site and download many of his albums as mp3s.