“Extending the Energy”: Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse

Photo: Dimitri Louis

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Sam Segal shares his perspective on last Friday’s performance of Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

“Since the beginning of time, critics have by and large been unable to deal with any creative expression,” saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman writes on his website, in an article that explains the basics of “M-Base,” a conceptual framework that has guided his creative process since the 1980s. So, Coleman may have been relieved in January, when following the departure of Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff, the New York Times found itself without any full-time jazz critics. Yet, even before the Times lost Chinen and Ratliff, the paper had significantly scaled back the number of live jazz reviews it published. According to Ratliff, in an effort to grow readership, editors at the Times had begun to take data analytics more seriously and they discovered that show reviews were performing poorly in comparison to articles that were wider in scope.

Despite his cynical view of critics and criticism, Steve Coleman’s performance in the McGuire Theater on Friday night with his band Natal Eclipse was an argument for why trying to write about live jazz still matters. “In my opinion,” Coleman states in the program notes, “any spontaneous act draws on the energy imbuing the moment when it occurs.” He regards the live performance as a singular moment of spontaneous creativity. A thinkpiece on, for example, how the multiculturalism of Coleman’s work acts as a counter-argument to the xenophobia of our current political climate might get a lot of hits. However, that piece would not likely capture the dynamic and slippery beauty Coleman and his band are capable of channeling from the energy of a moment.

The vast majority of Natal Eclipse’s performance was taken up by one constantly morphing piece. In their first two minutes on stage, the drummerless octet moved quickly and almost undetectably from ominous melancholy to jaunty playfulness. Without a drummer, the composition felt unshackled from the bounds of time signature. This allowed a freedom of movement, as the band worked itself over the course of an hour through dreamlike spaces, suspenseful cinematic thrills, and above all else, herky-jerky grooves that reminded the listener that jazz at its core is still dance music, or perhaps more importantly that music is still dance music.

Natal Eclipse’s performance blurred the line between composition and improvisation, a line that can sometimes constrict the free movement of music that’s created in the jazz idiom. Noticeably, the audience did not clap in between solos. This was because it was largely impossible to tell when one musician’s solo ended and another’s began. Yet, the band wasn’t engaging in group free improvisation. Fragments of composed melodic unity jutted into solos with little warning, leaving quickly without a trace. Individual band members frequently changed the tone of a soloist’s expression with a brief entrance. At one point, in a particularly smoking solo by pianist Matt Mitchell, Kristin Lee’s violin laced his soulfulness with a sense of baroque dread. The piece suggested a kind of freedom that defines itself not through dissonance, but rather through the opportunity to add one’s own energy to a collective vision. This was spontaneous group creation without selfishness from an ensemble of remarkable listeners.

The music performed on Friday night was non-linear by design. The composition was cyclical. Jovial weightlessness slyly transformed itself into chaotic uneasiness over and over. Natal Eclipse disregarded the dominant narrative arc of building from tension to climax to release. All three dynamics were constantly at play all at once. Coleman’s compositional strategy argued that familiar narrative structure is, in fact, too familiar.

At the end of the performance, Coleman hinted at a possible Walker residency in the works. Encouraging the audience to advocate for a lengthier engagement with the Walker, he jokingly suggested we write to our congressional representatives. With or without congressional backing, here’s hoping Steve Coleman returns to Minnesota soon to pick up where he left off—in the moment.

Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater on May 12, 2017.

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