The first thing I heard was laughter.
At The Stone, John Zorn’s Dieter-jazz follow-up to defunct Tonic, this is no mean feat. If Tonic had all the earnest scruffiness of a mid-90s Williamsburg squat—the garage with bedsheets for walls and a dirty skylight for a window—The Stone’s aim seems the opposite: to create a high-cult, gallery-like ambience for “creative” music. Even the name strains under the weight of its own symbolism: cornerstone of a new downtown, laid at the southeasternmost corner of the East Village/Alphabet City. Heavy stuff, this.
But laughter has a way of transfiguring spaces, making windows out of walls, turning stones into feathers. A child laughing in a museum always sounds insouciant. Laughter in a church turns the pulpit into a sandbox and the censer into a swing.
It was Steve Coleman doing the laughing. I might have guessed; I don’t think I’ve ever gone to see Coleman and not heard him laugh. This was at last year’s Pi Recordings festival, and Coleman, the resident heavyweight, was busy lightening the mood. He was sitting in an empty row of chairs at the far corner of our Spartan little auditorium, joined by the other musicians in that night’s trio, the trumpeter John Finlayson and pianist David Bryant. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. But it was Coleman whose laughter rang out for The Stone to hear.
A well-known educator as well as composer and improviser, Coleman clearly enjoys working with younger musicians, and one can easily see why younger musicians like working with him—and why artists like Finlayson, a ten-year veteran of Coleman’s Five Elements band, would stick around. In his backwards baseball cap, chamois shirt and loose-fitting jeans, Coleman looked hardly older than his mentees, many of whom were appearing in other Pi festival sets, on other nights, in combinations and permutations that seemed to mirror the music’s complex logic of chord substitutions.
As a 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal noted about his ongoing workshops at the Jazz Gallery, for Coleman “performance and instruction are often indistinguishable.”* The bandstand is a classroom, and vice-versa; a workshop is a set by another name. This was certainly borne out at The Stone, where Coleman spent the hour leading Finlayson and Bryant around the wormhole alleys of his harmonic imagination, restating lines, breaking them into bits, cycling through the bits until the other two musicians could patch the whole together. More than once he stopped playing and sang a melody, accenting the rhythm by clapping his hands. And just when they thought they had it, he would find some unexpected way out—the trapdoor, the corkscrew ladder, the skeleton key. No surprise that Coleman has compared his role to that of a Griot … or that he counts among his influences a visit to the Dagbon people of Ghana, who have—according to his rich, recondite website M-Base—“a tradition of speaking through their music, using a drum language that still survives today.”
Now, every good teacher knows that teaching is part performance. It’s not so much that Coleman exploits this crossover as that he seems most at home as a performer when he is teaching. At the same time, it’s possible to overstate Coleman’s role as leader. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the set had him laughing at, and then musically responding to, Bryant’s noodling diversions and interventions. The laughing teacher is the one who enjoys what his students have to contribute, who expects to learn as well as teach, to inspire and be inspired. Coleman, that is, never stepped back to play teacher—he was as fully present, as fully integrated in the music-making as the other two. It’s a difficult line to walk, between self-indulgence and self-effacement. Coleman made it look easy. Then again, if you like to teach, the classroom is often just a more structured, measured extension of whatever else you do.
Of course, teaching and learning are still work. Coleman may not be a harsh taskmaster, but his is a labor-intensive music, with a certain agony of force behind it. Finlayson had beads of sweat shining in his cropped afro, and not just because it was August. For a while, a moth circled around and around in the light above him, like some errant melody he couldn’t quite catch, hovering just out of reach of his spiraling drones.
Here is a thought: perhaps the set must be a lesson, because the lesson so conceived, and the teacher-student relationship so understood, embodies an ideal that allows egos to fuse, and the collaborative product of music-making to rise above the artificial strictures of clubs, sets, times, fees, and all the other elements of our culture that work to divide music from life, experience, spirit.
For this, finally, is Coleman’s project. In his wildly abstract musical imagination, jazz is code, a complex series of algorithms, but employed for the purpose of rising above mere intellectual play. Listening to a jam build over the course of eight or ten minutes (as one can do on Coleman’s most recent albums, like The Mancy of Sound) is like watching crystals grow in solution. Those clumped crystals, you may remember from your high school chemistry lab, always looked eerily organic, as if the submerged metal rods had grown hair. And this is precisely what happens in a Coleman jam: the austere, unforgiving beauty of pattern and code slowly takes on a palpable life. Math grows hair.
When the house lights came up, maybe because they’d played overtime, Finlayson and Coleman kept blowing as they exited (which, at The Stone, means either walking back over to the folding chairs, where everyone pretends they can’t see you anymore, or down to the basement). Had I stuck around a few more minutes, I have a feeling the conversation would have picked up right where the music left off.
* Unfortunately, Coleman has never been present the few times I attended these Monday night workshops. What I saw was a venue for up-and-coming musicians (the sort the Jazz Gallery exists to support and promote) to test out new compositions with each other, and with an audience. Apparently, Coleman’s absence from many of these “Steve Coleman Presents” events resulted in complaints—or so the guy working the door himself complained, on one of those nights when I was there and Coleman wasn’t. True, curator and organizer does not mean bandleader … but it is a little questionable to put the words “Steve Coleman Presents” in big letters on the ad, and then wonder why people—particularly visitors to Gotham—might be a teensy-weensy bit disappointed. Anyway, for a good idea what Mondays look like when Coleman is present, see the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article.