Steve Coleman is a popular jazz saxophonist and a serious music academician at the same time. If you love fancy time-signature games a la King Crimson, or you've got a taste for funky electric jazz, or if you're interested in the melding of jazz and African music, then you might give his stuff a try.

Coleman's early compositions involve complex forests of overlapping time signatures ... you'll have a straight 4/4-sounding drum pattern locked in with, say, an 11/4 bass line and later joined by a wandering, composed guitar riff ... and Coleman will then wail his alto sax over the whole thing. At first listen, it sounds like just a jam session, but it's fun to peel away the complexities underneath. The overall sound borrows a bit from fusion and funk thanks to the use of electric bass.

It's accessible stuff but very complex. The older stuff in particular (I'm thinking of his album Black Science) gives you the constant feeling of always shifting without ever finding your balance. It's like when you trip on the sidewalk, and your momentum keeps you walking even though you're still stumbling.

Perhaps more interesting is the intense academic study involved in his work. Coleman has worked hard on developing his own branch of music theory, involving highly mathematical ideas about tonal centers and chords. He's developed his own "cell notation" to describe these ideas, as well as his own notation for drums.

Coleman also developed a philosophy of music making that he called M-Base. The word is often used to describe Coleman's overall musical sound, and he hates that. It's more a relationship between life experience and musical expression, abstract stuff that's probably better left for an M-Base node (anyone? Buehler? Fry?)

Coleman was born in Chicago in 1956 and began playing sax at age 13, taking his inspiration from Maceo Parker (then James Brown's saxophonist). After attending Illinois Wesleyan University, Coleman moved to New York City, the jazz epicenter. It wasn't a glamorous start -- hitchhiking there and staying at the YMCA -- but he landed big band gigs with Cecil Taylor and Sam Rivers, as well as a spot in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. These jobs led to sideman recording jobs, and Coleman's career was on its way.

His own resume at http://www.m-base.com lists three primary influences during that time: Von Freeman, for improvisation; Sam Rivers, for composition; and Doug Hammond for musical conception. Coleman also began listening to the music of West Africa.

The M-Base thing seems to have formed organically during the 1980s -- that is, Coleman and friends nurtured its development through playing and practice. Beginning in 1985, Coleman began documenting M-Base on the now-defunct JMT record label, moving to American labels around 1990 as his music gained in popularity. A trip to Ghana in 1993 and 1994 helped Coleman study the relationship between music and language, further expanding Coleman's musical scope. This was followed by a trip to Cuba to research the African musics that have survived there.

Most of Coleman's work is recorded under the name "Steve Coleman and Five Elements" -- this is the basic M-Base stuff that began in the '80s. More recently, he's played and recorded with his "Mystic Rhythm Society," an outlet for his studies in Ghana and Cuba.

Coleman also got into computers in the 1980s and began writing programs to assist him in M-Base composition. He revived those ideas late in the '90s, porting them to more current technology of course, and that work led to a commission from IRCAM, the French computer-music research center, to develop interactive software. He debuted the results of his program, Rameses, in a 1999 concert.

Beginning in 2000, Steve became an associate professor at U.C. Berkeley, teaching courses on jazz improvisation and chamber-jazz ensemble playing (he also had to pay his dues teaching the non-major music appreciation course, derisively called "Clapping for Credit"). His research includes work on symmetry, rhythmic relationships to music, and the use of Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean in music.

Curious about what Steve teaches? Check out a sample course syllabus: http://www.m-base.com/cnmat_ucb/Symbolic_Philosophy_Music.html

Sources:
-- http://www.m-base.com
-- Steve's UC Berkeley pages at http://ls.berkeley.edu/dept/music/Coleman.html ...
-- ... and http://cnmat.CNMAT.Berkeley.EDU/~mbase/

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