"I don't believe in the word 'jazz', I just call what I do 'music' "

Chicago-born Coleman founded the M-Base collective.
Chicago-born Coleman founded the M-Base collective. / SUR
  • Steve Coleman, Saxophonist and composer

  • American musician Steve Coleman, creator of the M-Base group, is the first performer at this year's Malaga Jazz Festival

Steve Coleman (Chicago, 1956) is the first performer at 2017’s Malaga Jazz Festival at Teatro Cervantes on Wednesday night. Despite his large and growing repertoire, he defines his work as a “journey” which continues throughout his life. He is travelling around Europe as part of his Steve Coleman and Five Elements project, a name which refers to the five ancient elements, which he has been working on since 1981.

He is currently performing with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Anthony Tidd on bass, Sean Rickman on drums, and Myles Okazaki on guitar. SUR spoke to Coleman ahead of his performance where he discussed his musical style and what to expect from his upcoming performance.

He also spoke about racial issues, stating that with the arrival of Trump in the White House, the extremist groups have felt empowered. A musical pioneer, Coleman refuses to label his music as jazz, given that he does not even believe in the term, and is the founder of the M-Base collective.

–Next week you’re playing at the Malaga Jazz Festival, which has been going for quite a few years and is often used as a reference in the local music sphere. What would you say is the current role of jazz around the world right now?

–Well, I really don’t call what I do ‘jazz’, I really don’t believe in the word at all. I just call it “music”, or “spontaneous music” which is created in the moment. When people ask us ‘can you give us the names of the songs you’re going to play’, we can’t even do that, because there is a lot of spontaneous composition in the moment and I’m aware that most people call this jazz, but I don’t

–Why not?

–It’s not a term that means anything to me, it never has. I’m not the only one, there’s many people who refuse to call it by that term, but I know the media does and record companies do, I’m well aware of that, but I’m not into categories.

–Can you tell me a bit about M-Base?

–Well, M-Base is what we refer to as a way of thinking about music, it’s not a style of music in itself. It’s not really a philosophy, it doesn’t go that far. But we’re thinking about creating music from our life experiences. My life experience doesn’t really have any label, which is one reason why I don’t use the term jazz. Music for me is just an extension of what we experience every day, it’s changing all the time, so to call it by a particular name wouldn’t make sense. I can give you an example, when Bach was in the what people call today the Baroque period, they didn’t have a name for the time they were living, just like we don’t have a name for this time. Only people in the future will look back at this time and give it a name. But Bach didn’t say “I’m in the Baroque period”, Beethoven didn’t say “I’m in the classical period”, these were names that were dropped later. Creators of something don’t usually tend to think of something in terms of categories.

–What kind of record would you say ‘Morphogenesis’ is?

–All of those pieces started off as spontaneous compositions, which were later notated and orchestrated. Some of them are inspired by boxing, others are inspired by other things. It’s funny because I look at all my concerts and records as one continuous experience, but I know that people treat them as individual things. I’m playing all the time, whether it’s in private or public, most of my playing is done in private. We’re really happy to be playing anywhere really (laughs,) we play to share our experiences with people. For me, every place is special, every audience is special, every place feels different. We play different things because we get different energy from different audiences and places. We’re not just playing notated music. There are a lot of things we pick up on the spot. ‘Morphogenesis’ documents a moment in time, when I hear it, it reminds me of what was happening at the time that we created that music, it’s like a snapshot. It’s just living.

–Given all of that, what can the audience expect from your performance in Malaga?

–(Laughs) Well, I would tell them to come with an open mind, not to expect something they heard on our record. They might hear bits and pieces of things, but I think of it as taking a journey every time we perform. It’s the kind of music for people who want to travel, it’s not like a pop concert where people come, sing along with the songs, wave candles, it’s more like a journey of imagination. I think that’s what they should expect.

–Putting the musical aspect aside, we’ve seen that since Trump has become president the number of racist groups against African Americans has increased. Do you think that, given this, the situation is worse now that it was a few years ago?

–I don’t think the number of racist groups has increased, the racism has always been there, they feel more empowered to express themselves. Many groups have said themselves that they feel more emboldened, that they have somebody in the White House who expresses their views more clearly, they have said this, not Trump. The United States is built on racism, it’s nothing new, it started out that way. A lot of countries started with genocide and stuff, it’s not really a new thing.

–What do you think of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement? Do you think it works to raise awareness among Americans and around the world?

–For me, no, but maybe for some people. Because some people feel like they need movements to tell them what to think, you could actually do this yourself. If you’re an intelligent person you can see what’s happening and think for yourself, you don’t need a movement for that. Many people need this kind of thing to feel like they’re part of something. Yeah, all these things make some kind of difference, sure, but whether they make a difference on a government level, that’s a whole other story. I don’t think it would affect somebody like Donald Trump. It may make these people feel better. In my life I haven’t seen many things change yet.