As a composer, Steve Coleman has been heavily influenced by James Brown's funk. You wouldn't mistake Coleman's band Five Elements for the J.B.'s, but like the Godfather of Soul, he goes in for fast, jittery beats. On Coleman's new album, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, Five Elements is powered by a rhythm duo who sync up in a few bands: bassist Thomas Morgan and drum phenom Tyshawn Sorey.
Steve Coleman has always connected with singers. Coming up in the 1980s, he worked with the veteran Abbey Lincoln and fellow newcomer Cassandra Wilson. Jen Shyu's role is slippery here. She's not quite out front and not quite fully aligned with the sextet's three horns. Her main feature is the one non-original tune, Coleman's setting of a choral work by Danish composer Per Nørgård. He's an influence on Coleman's own arcane ways of developing material — like dipping into the so-called undertone series, which is basically the natural overtone series turned upside down. Don't ask me to explain it, but you can find out more about the undertone series here and how Coleman uses it here.
If Steve Coleman's music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it's because he's more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood. That's okay; there's room for all kinds of approaches. That adapted choral music prompts us to see Coleman as a composer of modern art songs. His pieces often revolve around looping phrases or recurring patterns that overlap or seep into each other. It's the West African drum-choir principle: Wheels within wheels can keep rolling indefinitely.
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