A Steve Coleman Solo

An abiding obsession of mine for the past year has been a Steve Coleman solo from a live DVD of Dave Holland’s band. They’re playing Freiburg Jazz Festival in 1986 with a line-up of:

Steve – Alto

Robin Eubanks – Trombone

Kenny Wheeler – Trumpet

Dave – Bass

Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith – Drums

A pretty heavy band! Nice the way that Kenny’s freer, lyrical playing fits into the music just as easily as the M-Base approach of Steve and Robin. If anyone is interested the DVD is called Dave Holland Quintet – Live in Freiburg (although I subsequently found out in an e-mail from Steve Coleman that it was made illegally and they didn’t get paid for it!).

The particular solo I’m talking about is from the first piece in the gig, a Dave Holland tune ‘New One’. The piece is divided into different sections – the initial head sets up a solo for Kenny, then another written section is introduced which sets up a rhythmic pattern for Robin Eubanks to solo over then another written section occurs that leads into Steve’s solo. Here’s that written section and his solo in full:

New One solo.mp3

I’m still utterly flawed by this every time I hear it (how do you sound that interesting for nearly ten minutes?). The complexity of his lines and yet the coherence within them is amazing, especially given that this is completely free, ‘time no changes’ blowing. There is no set form or set rhythmic/harmonic structure, just the preceding written material setting the mood. Also pretty incredible is Dave Holland’s ability to follow the chromatic twists of Steve’s lines so perfectly and Smitty’s wonderful drumming. Whilst a real fan of the language that Steve Coleman uses, I often find his own records a bit cold. What really makes this solo for me is to have his language set against such a killing modern jazz rhythm section, with all the swing, complexity, interaction and flexibility that they have access to. It’s really clear to me that the metric and polyrhythmic implications of what Dave and Smitty are doing is the rhythmic equivalent of Steve’s harmonic language – both are constantly on the brink of falling into atonality or atemporality, yet retain just enough basic pulse and diatonicism to prevent this from happening.

Following Liebman’s talk on transcription mentioned in a previous post, I’ve decided to finally knuckle down and transcribe this by ear. I’m now at the end of this process and it’s been a real slog, but I can hear the difference in my playing. I started by listening to the solo over and over again, at least once a day if possible. This was particularly important given the lack of set structure in the music. By repeated listening, my ear started to notice little landmarks in the solo – particular phrases that stuck out and allowed me to get my bearings. Having done this, I had a better idea of the geography of the whole thing and so moved on to detailed transcription phrase by phrase. Again following Liebman’s advice, I learnt to sing each bit before I allowed myself to play it on my horn. His point about this is that you have to be able to hear something internally if you are to really use it coherently in your playing. Otherwise it just becomes a series of (in my case) valve movements. An interesting proof of this to me was that, before I really learnt to hear this language, my attempts to reproduce it in my own improvising always ended up being a lot more ‘inside’ than I wanted them to be. The music I’d really transcribed fully and learnt to hear until that point had been much straighter changes playing, so that was all I was capable of reproducing, even when I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to play. Really having to get inside Steve’s lines interval by interval has been invaluable in remedying this. Here I am singing along:

New One Solo – Vocals.mp3

(Apologies for the cod New York alto vibrato – I didn’t realise I was doing this. I think it’s clear from this performance that Kurt Elling hasn’t got anything to wory about!).

You’ll notice of course that I haven’t done the whole solo. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it has taken me nearly three months to get this far, which I think is fair enough given the complexity of what I’m transcribing. It would probably take me a year to get the entire solo down and to be quite honest I have neither the time nor the patience. Related to this is the fact that my aim in transcribing this solo was to access a certain kind of outside language and find ways of describing it that allowed me to practise it. I felt that by this stage in the solo, I’d achieved this. I’d got a full idea of the concepts behind the playing and could carry on by extrapolating from these, rather than by transcribing more of the playing itself. It’s not that I think that Steve plays the same stuff for the rest of the solo, just that the approach behind what he’s doing doesn’t change from the first three minutes. The point of this transcription was to acquire a certain kind of knowledge, not to do the transcription itself. It might have given me a certain kind of smug satisfaction in being able to reel off the whole nine minutes, but it wouldn’t have furthered my goal any more than sticking with what I have done. Frankly, given the amount of time and effort involved, this wasn’t a good enough reason!

Having learnt to sing each bit, I then learnt to play it. There’s not much to say about this other than that it was lovely to realise how easy it was to play correctly once I’d learnt to really hear the solo deeply – how the improvement in my ear translated through to my playing so quickly.

New One Solo – Trumpet.mp3

(There is one point where the solo drops below the range of the trumpet and I have to drop out for a few notes).

The last stage in Liebman’s transcription process is analysis. I would happily have posted up the written version of what I’d transcribed, but it runs into ten pages. If anybody would like a copy just let me know.

When I really started to analyse what Steve was doing, it amazed me to realise how much more traditional the language was than it sounded. I’d e-mailed him about this solo and in his reply he’d named as influences Von Freeman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Bird and Coltrane. From listening to the solo I’d expected something more like Cecil Taylor, Webern and Bartok! However, on closer inspection, most of the shapes and phrases he’s using are coming out of, particularly, Bird and Coltrane. Much of the solo has the kind of ‘bebop flow’ (George Garzone’s term) typical of Bird’s playing. More angular phrases, for instance based around fourths, are similar to Coltrane on something like ‘Resolution’ from A Love Supreme. What Steve does is slightly alter some of these phrases so as to increase the atonality and rhythmic irregularity beyond even Bird and Coltrane. This, combined with the freedom in the composition and the rhythm section is what gives us this sound world.

Here are a few of the techniques Steve uses (all timings refer to the first mp3 in this post):

–  Using different chords within a key centre. At ‘0.21 (after that amazing first leap upwards a sixth) Steve goes outlines major, diminished, whole tone and minor scales in Ab.

– Ending on ‘sour notes’ that skew the ear away from the line’s implied tonality. At ‘0.36, Steve outlines Bb minor pentatonic in fourths (the Coltrane influence) but then hits c, a natural and f#, which are dissonant to this. The effect is that the entire line sounds more out than it really is. Interesting to note that consonance and dissonance work horizontally in line as well as vertically in chords.

– Sidestepping. ‘0.41 starts up G minor and switches half way through the line up a semitone to Ab minor.

– Sequential enclosures. Often seen as a bit of blag in outside playing, but here used effectively as a means of descending from the high point of a phrase and then coming out somewhere  unexpected. (‘0.54). N.B. Miles did this is lot in the sixties.

– Intervallic playing. This is a particularly good example of how Steve adds a new twist to older methods. He might well use a fairly standard harmonic trick, for example sidestepping, but makes a particular interval, rather than the underlying harmony, the feature of the line. Fourths at ‘1.27 are a good example. He also uses sequences of the same interval, for instance thirds at ‘2.05.

– Use of expanding semitones within a fairly small interval. This is a difficult one to describe. The best example is the beginning of the phrase at ‘2.01. Steve widens the vertical parameters of the line a note a time. The note he ends on (Bb) is tonally weaker because of this.

I’ve been able to derive exercises from each of these methods that help me to reproduce them in my own way. As well as this, I have to say that simply playing and listening to the solo a lot has started to improve my playing in this area without necessarily analysing what I’m doing. As usual, I’ve found a combination of logic and intuition the best approach.


3 Responses to “A Steve Coleman Solo”

  1. mbase Says:

    Good job of singing, that’s a lot of work! I’m curious, what is ‘sidestepping’ and ‘sour notes? I’ve heard that term a lot, but since I never attended any kind of improvisation class I don’t really know what a lot of these terms mean.

  2. Bob Says:

    Great job on a great artist.I would appreciate it if you could send me
    a pdf of the first four pages of the transcription you did on “New One”.
    Thanks for sharing your work.

  3. games-like-imvu-but-better.blogspot.com Says:

    Keep this goimg please, great job!

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