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On the Move: Steve Coleman and Metrics hope to spur the creative urges of local community groups as part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

Steve Coleman's M-BASE project is more than a musical style--it's a way of creative life

By Nicky Baxter

MENTION THE term M-BASE these days, and improvisational-music player and composer Steve Coleman is liable to get a mite defensive. Which is a bit odd, because the concept did derive largely from Coleman some 15 years ago, when he and fellow saxophonist Greg Osby had some old/new notions concerning what Amiri Baraka would likely have characterized as New Black Music. M-BASE was the conceptual framework that sought to make cogent those ideas. A catchy acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization, the M-word wound up backfiring, to an extent.

Coleman, Osby and company underestimated much of the mainstream--and "alternative"--media's predilection for latching onto labels, a tendency compounded by their apparent fear of anything like a black plan. Thus, in an apparent effort to chop Macro-B down to bite-size, some critics characterized M-BASE as a musical style--a complex one, to be sure, but a style nevertheless. This narrow emphasis served to direct attention further afield from the collective's philosophic core.

So what does Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization really signify? Coleman (who, along with Metrics, one of his many creative permutations, is a guest artist in residence at this year's Stanford Jazz Workshop), breaks it down: "The original idea was to make music that keeps evolving. But the press made it a style of music. But there's never been any card-carrying [M-BASE] members--just musicians who think along similar lines."

And what might those similarities be? "Well, there was a time when the music was more a shared experience," Coleman explains. "Musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed a musical lexicon that other players knew whether they lived in San Francisco, Philadelphia or New York." Those days, he laments, are stardust memories.


IF COLEMAN is the diplomatic one, co-founder Osby seems unconcerned about such niceties. I tracked down the alto saxophonist in Vancouver, Canada, where he is on tour to support Art Forum, his new album on Blue Note. "[In the early 1980s] people were theorizing a lot but hadn't applied their ideas," he explains. "With M-BASE, we came up with an acronym so people would refer to us specifically. We wanted something that we defined and controlled."

Osby had heard of Coleman even before arriving in New York soon after graduating from Berklee's College of Music. "We struck up an immediate rapport, shared similar aspirations," Osby recalls. "Remember this was during the era of the 'young lions' [e.g., Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison]. And the vibe was really retro. It was encouraged that younger musicians play [neo-bop]."

He continues, "We respected that music, but we didn't want to be restricted to that. I've never subscribed to the notion of adhering to any one way of doing things." Osby is a man of strong convictions about his art. "Music is not just entertainment; it wasn't just about writing new songs. We wanted to make music that communicated."

To that end, Coleman, Osby and other pre-BASErs fanned out across New York City, surveying musicians on their thoughts about where the music was going and what aspirations the new breed harbored. The primary aim is to play music as heavy on the top (sounds for thought) as on the bottom (M-BASS is no mere play on words): modern urbane music for the masses.

Unlike the musical reactionaries with commercial clout, Coleman and others resist prostrating themselves at the altar of bop and before. Not that M-BASE heads and adherents give no love to the Dukes, Counts and Birds, it's just that they don't stop there. Coleman and the M-BASE men and women weren't so much interested in reviving the sound of Parker's bands as they were in reanimating his spirit--his unremitting pursuit of the new.

If there is one unifying force binding alto saxophonist Coleman, alto/sopranist Osby, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, cornetist Graham Haynes, keyboardist Geri Allen and other artists at one time or another associated with the M-BASE collective, it is their willingness (compulsion?) to embrace the entire spectrum of African Diasporan music made in America.

HENCE, THERE is an emphasis on a continuum that begins long before the first Africans were spirited away to the new world--a continuum bridging secular and nonsecular music and yielding the blueprint for what is today known as "jazz." And we haven't even gotten 'round to soul, R&B, funk, hip-hop and computer-based modes, five elements essential to Coleman's mix.

Five Elements is also the name of what is perhaps the collective's most notable and longest-lived ensemble. The original roster reads like an improvisational-music Who's Who: bassist Kim Clarke; drummer Mark Johnson; guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly; Cassandra Wilson on vox; trumpeter and cornetist Graham Haynes; and Coleman and Osby. The numbers might not have added up right, but the music solved the equation.

(Ironically, M-BASE, the performance entity proper, has recorded just one disc--Anatomy of a Groove--which was eventually released on Rebel X, a maverick indie, some four years ago.)

Recorded last year live at the Hot Brass Club in Paris, Curves of Life (RCA), featuring Coleman and the Five Elements, superbly illustrates the M-BASE beat manifesto. Here, we find Coleman and company--keyboardist Andy Milne, bassist Reggie Washington and drummer Gene Lake--assaying modern black music in all its flamboyantly manifold shadings.

Particularly outstanding are Coleman's guests: tenor saxophonist David Murray and hip-hop script-flippers Black Indian, Sub-Zero and Kokayi. Unlike Coleman's previous collaboration with hip-hop posse the Metrics (A Tale of 3 Cities), Curves of Life is a much more organic affair. On the two tracks showcasing rhyming, there's no sense of disjunction, of culture clash. Rather, word and song both have power, and the mesh is infinitely satisfying.

The same is true of Coleman's own inside/out playing. Like Henry Threadgill, Kenny Garrett and others, Coleman has taken bits of Bird's legacy and flown the coop. The attentive listener, however, can detect the flighty genius of Eric Dolphy as well as the funky strut of Pee Wee Ellis and Nat Jones. Ultimately, what you're hearing are the essentials--the basics, as it were--of black music past, present and on into the future.

Some of that future will be hammered out in the Steve Coleman Project at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in early August. Working with the Metrics, Coleman will lead a variety of free, grassroots community workshops, demonstrations and lectures throughout the Bay Area and on the Peninsula. The project will culminate on Aug. 9 in a concert performance.

The Steve Coleman Project runs July 30­Aug. 10 at various locations. Call 415/386-8535 for details. Coleman and Metrics perform Aug. 9 at 8pm at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford. Tickets are $10/$12.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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