In the evening of November 18 st, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the the basic development pivot of the M-Base Collective concept, and one of the most important pioneer artist that runs through contemporary black music. The Chicago alto saxo Steve Coleman
The interview was done moments before his live Steve Coleman & Five Elements “MDW NTR”, along with Kokayi , Jonathan Finlayson, Anthony Tidd, and Sean Rickman, at the Conde Duque Auditorium , within the Madrid International Jazz Festival 2022
In&Outjazz: Hi Steve, nice to meet you, great pleasure! Welcome to the interview! Would be why are you more sympathetic to the term “spontaneous composition” rather than the term “jazz”?
Steve Coleman: I mean, there’s many many musicinas that don’t like the term “jazz”. It goes back to Duke Ellington, Max Roach and all those guys so it didn’t start with me. We just don’t feel like that word is representative of the music. What do you mean when you say “jazz”? Do you mean Louie Amstrong? Do you mean Kenny G? There’s so many music that’s so far appart and they call them all “jazz” that the term is useless. It just doesn’t mean anything.
What about the term “spontaneous composition”?
Because, the big part of our music, is that the “spontaneous composition” is a big…, is amajor element. The spontaneous part. And it is composition, you know? So it’s just a descriptive term.
According to this topic, we find that two main elements of your music are rhythmic structures and the energy. And you’re always seeking change and spontaneity through these elements. What is the meaning of energy and rhythmic structures for you?
Well I mean, in music of the african diaspora rhythm is one of the main elements, you know? So I’m just part of that tradition. It’s not something that I created, but it’s something that was happening before, before I came along. So all my mentors, all the people who taught me, who I admired, the older people, it was important for them, and so I just come into this tradition. Those things are not things that I created myself. They’re things that were already in existence before I was even born.
And so it’s just part of a culture, like flamenco, like japanese snow music, like indonesian music. These is all traditions, different traditions. And so the things that are important for the different people in different places happen beacuse of culture. It’s not really because of music, it’s beacuase of culture. Cause see, rhythm is important for us in basketball, in boxing, in all of these things, it’s not just music. So I happen to be a musician, so yeah, for me I express music, but Mohamed Ali expresses boxing and it’s the same principle, it’s the same thing. And many people think that it’s special on the music, but no, it’s everywhere.
It’s in the way that people walk, the way they talk. It’s in all of that. And the music comes from that. It’s not the other way around. It’s the culture first and then the music is coming out of it, of the culture.
And so, what’s the lesson that the culture gives music in terms of change? How do you take change into music?
Well, I mean, I think that change is the natural state of humans, I mean, just look at human society. Look at what’s happening in the last hundred years or the last two hundred years, it’s a lot of change you know.
Or the last couple of days
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean there’s a lot to happen, so change is happening all the time and we’re just expressing it in music. I prefer to express this music than war or some other destructive kind of thing, or fucking up the climate or the planet or something like that, but
change is happening there too. It’s happening in politics, it’s happening everywhere. So we just we express this in music. We happen to be musicians, so all these things are coming out of this music. But we’re still human, so the same things that happen with other humans happen with us. You know? Sometimes I go on stage, I have a stomachache or I have a problem with something…
That also takes and important role in how you play?
Sure, sure, because the music is coming from us.
And according to this, how important is the intuition?
Well, again, that’s again in human, you know? Quality for humans, intuition…It’s al important, intuition, dreams, what you inhert from the people who came before you, like you DNA and all this, all of this things play a role. But intuition…I don’t think of inuition and logic as really separate things, for me it’s like a holistic kind of thing. Because whatever created people gave you all of this ability. You have te ability for inuition, you hace the ability for logic, you have the ability to dream, so I think you’re supposed to use all of these, this is what was given to you, these abilities. I mean, your not a mosquito right? You’re a human so…
So intuition is not that it is different from the planned structure of the tune you guys are playing. Both things take an important role?
Ah, you ….how we play? Well the best analogy I can give for what the way we play is talking, because language is the thing that I model the music after. So just like we have a conversation and I’ve never had this conversation before with somebody else because you’re saying things to me that other people have never said, and I’m answering to you the other thing you know? But we’re using the same words, the same phrases, we have a language…etc. The music is kind of like this. Every night is like a different conversation but there is a language. If there’s no a language we would not be able to understand each other. If we just take a musician off the street and bring him on the stage is not gonna be the same, because he doesn’t speak the same language. He has his music, but it’s like saying Catalan, English, Urdu, these are different languages, they all sound, but they’re different languages, they have a different syntax, and what things mean and things like this. In one language “ah” might mean one thing and “ah” might mean something else in China, you know?
That’s also the beauty of languages
Yeah sure, it’s like you have all this variety and everything, so whenever you see a group of musicians that have been together for a long time, they usually develop a kind of language that they’re able to speak with each other. So I think of it as language a lot. For me it’s like
conversation. Each concert is like a different conversation.
How do you keep your creativeness going for three decades?
Three decades…, it’s been long in three decades, yeah. I started this group in 81, so it’sbeen fourty one years,
Yeah hahaha, and I’m going for Duke Ellington’s record. Duke Ellingon had his orchestra together for fifty years. I’m trying to…I have nine more years haahahaha.
And how do you keep your creativeness going? Your inspiration and all that kind ofstuff?
I mean, sometimes I don’t. I can’t say that for every moment it’s been like this, sometimes you get depressed, sometimes you get down, you have bad months, bad years even. I mean, this pandemic year, 2020, was very difficult for a lot of people. A lot of musicians you know. Some musicians even stopped playing.
And you understand that in terms of changes also?
You know what I’m saying, it’s the same question, either you do or you don’t. Either you don’t keep going, or you do keep going. And we’re all going to the same place. Everybody is gonna diesooner or later. But you just keep going until that point happens. Is the same thing to music. The music for me is not separate than life. Is a part of my life, it’s like eating, drinking, shitting, you know, it’s just a part of life. It’s become a part of me, I don’t think this separate. I don’t say “now I’m going to do some music”. All the time in my head, even when I’m eating is the going on. So, I don’t know, it’s not a separate thing, so it would be like me asking you “how do you keep going?”. Yo don’t think about not keep going, you just keep going you know?
And what meaning does MDW NTR have for you?
Oh that stuff’s…your talking about that from the record. That stuff’s egyptian. The words look like that because they didn’t use vowels when they wrote their language. I mean there were no vowels used. So for example if they were to write “heru”, if you write it “h-e-r-u” today, they would just write ir “h-r”, without the “e” and without the “u” and everything. So that’s why the words look like that. So this is “medu neter”.
Yeah, we found that the meaning of that is, that they were referring to they’re writing language and…
Exactly, sacred writing or beautiful writing or something like that
Or God’s Word
Words of God yeah
Or divine Word
That’s good you did your research hahahaha
Well, but it’s very interesting cause you were saying before that we’re all gonna die sometime
Sure, it’s definite
But there are different approaches to like, this reality actually. You can approach it in like a more spitirual way. So maybe you were like going through that way of thinking about…
Yeah, well, a lot of the way I think about the music, I’ve been into ancient egyptian stuff for a long time, since the late 80’s or 90’s or something like this, so for a long time. You’ll see this a lot in a lot of my albums and saying things like this you know? It’s a little more exagerated on this album but it’s there a lot. Even in the albums of the 90’s there was all these “heru” and “mayat” and all these terms of stuff like that. So it’s not a new thing, it’s something that’s been there for I would say thirty years, at least, since at least 91 or something like this. Because it’s on,
I mean Dimitri you know it’s on all these albums, I made those, in the 90’s, BMG albums.
Yeah, definitely, that’s also a big part of life.You are one of the most influential musicians for the new generations of jazz musician, what do you have to say about this?
I mean, I think a lot of this is, I won’t say accident, but it’s just a matter of when you wereborn. Because if you notice, the people who were influenced by Charlie Parker were all younger than him. Nobody older than him was really influenced by him. The people who are influenced by John Coltrane were younger than him. So, after you start getting ten years beyond when I wasborn that’s when you start to see the guys being influenced by me. Some of it I think, and it’s not just me, I mean, Mark Turner has people, he’s influenced people, there’s other people too you know, Geri Allen, is a great piano player, she had a lot of piano players were influenced by her. Me and Geri were born in a certain time, and so we influenced the certain generation who’s come behind us. And then those people will influence generations that come behind them. It’s a chain that keeps going you know. So it’s not…, when you say there are people influenced by me is usually because they were born after me. And yeah, you do have a choice, you could be influenced by me or you could be influenced by Wynton Marsalis and other guys like my contemporary. Of course you have a choice but we all have influenced a certain generation and then they will all influence a certain generation. You might see Joel Ross and guys like this influenced by us, that’s because they’re much younger. That’s all that there is. And also, most of these people we used to teach. You know? I mean when they were like…, I met the trumpet player here when he was thirteen years old, and he’s fourty now.
I think we’re done, thank you very much Steve. Have a great gig.