Steve Coleman on "Confirmation"

Steve Coleman at the Paris Selmer factory, ca. 2004
At one point during a masterclass at Banff last summer, Vijay Iyer said something along the lines that the elephant in the room during our discussions of contemporary approaches to improvisation and composition was Steve Coleman. It's true that many of the faculty members at Banff had worked with and been influenced by Coleman's approach to music: Vijay, Miles Okazaki, Jonathan Finlayson, just to mention a few. 

Prior to Banff, I had never been exposed to Coleman's music. Neither at Manhattan School of Music Precollege nor at NEC did I hear very much about him as either a player or a composer, and although I had heard of M-Base, I had no idea what it meant (I still don't really know). What I do know, though, is that much of Coleman's music sounds fresh, rhythmically exciting, and very much unlike the majority of improvised music associated with the jazz tradition in recent years. I'm not going to make any attempt to summarize or describe M-Base any further—Coleman has generously made available a wealth of resources for free, including recordings, pieces of writing by and about him, as well as by those of his associates, and I'm sure there's much more that I haven't found. I'd like to explore his music further, but I guess the best way to start would be to download all the recordings and listen to them critically. I had hoped that there'd be more technical material online (there aren't many scores available from the M-Base website since I last checked), but it seems to me that a significant component of Coleman's approach works beyond the scope of the classical European tradition, particularly with regards to notation and the role of intuition as a component of musical technique, i.e., there are some aspects of Coleman's approach that are necessarily unfamiliar to the point of seeming almost 'mystical' to a person like me, who's only been exposed to a limited subset of the music in the world. 

To start, I thought I'd try transcribing one particular arrangement of "Confirmation" from Def Trance Beat (Modalities of Rhythm) (1994), whose rhythmic cycles were different for me to grasp at first until I realized that the repeating cycle is relatively simple: while maintaining the harmonic rhythm of the tune (save for the first 4 and the last 4 bars), every third bar is in 5/4. The 3rd and 4th bar of the tune are compressed into one bar so that the first half of the tune is 15 bars long, which divides evenly by the 3-bar 5/4—4/4—4/4 cycle, and the last bar of the tune is omitted (the resolution to the tonic) so that the second half is also 15 bars long, creating a pleasing formal symmetry and leading unexpectedly (but forcefully) to the top of the tune without that additional resolution in the final bar. 

I've been practicing this a bit recently and will probably try other variations on this (starting the 5/4 on the 2nd or 3rd bar, for instance) and on other tunes ("All the Things You Are" works well, since it's 36 bars long), but the next step will be to try to write a tune that doesn't use the exact same cycle but uses this sort of a rhythmic device. Take a listen here:




Here's the transcription, followed by a leadsheet in C:





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Interestingly, one of the YouTube commenters suggested that the tune was in 5/8 + 4/4, or else 5+8/8, but I'm pretty sure it's 5/4 + 4/4 + 4/4, based on the bass and drum groove.

Also, thanks to Miles Okazaki for pointing out that the C7 at the end of the first A was erroneously notated a beat late (the 5/4 measures are played 2+3).

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