Saturday, April 4, 2009

Steve Coleman at The Blue Room

Kansas City's cool kids were at The Blue Room Friday night.

You have no idea how gratifying it feels to be able to write those words without a trace of irony. It had been a long time coming.

Indie rock hipsters, forward-thinking jazz musicians and musical adventurers of all stripes accounted for most of the approximately 100 people on hand to see saxophonist, composer and conceptualist Steve Coleman.

His 75-minute second set was my favorite live music experience to date in 2009.

Coleman demonstrated that he still possesses the fire and imagination that he displayed when he burst onto the scene in the mid-'80s. For many music fans, myself included, Coleman represented the future of jazz. He combined the outside concepts of Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and James "Blood" Ulmer with contemporary hip hop, R&B and reggae. That sounds like a mess. And sometimes his recordings were a confused jumble. But just as often, Coleman offered a rare and entirely refreshing approach that promised to reenergize jazz.

Over twenty years later, Coleman works in relative obscurity. His jaw-dropping performance Friday proved that his artistic vision hasn't diminished. Rather, he just hasn't been able to overcome overwhelming public indifference to serious jazz. In fact, the 52-year-old's effort possessed all of the wild-eyed aggressiveness and exploratory spirit that made me fall in love with the music in the first place.

Coleman's playing fused the majestic essence of John Coltrane with the sense of tradition established by the likes of Coleman Hawkins. Yet it was Coleman's skill as a bandleader that most impressed.

Vocalist Jen Shyu played an enormous role in the night's success. She's a miraculously engaging combination of Bjork and Ella Fitzgerald. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson might easily be mistaken for a chess master. His cerebral playing matches his appearance. Bassist Thomas Morgan held these disparate elements together.

The set didn't end so much as it petered out. Coleman seemed unsatisfied with last-minute substitute drummer Brandon Draper's interpretation of a rhythm. The show stopped as Coleman conducted a rehearsal-style lesson. It probably wasn't much fun for Draper- who had, incidentally, been spectacular- but it provided the audience fascinating insight into Coleman's strategic vision.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)


cbjazz said...

Indeed. Very good blog! I hope we have more of that type of "now music" presented in KC's great listening venues like the Blue Room ...

Peace, Cb

Happy In Bag said...

I don't often articulate the sentiment, CB, but The Blue Room is truly an excellent space.

Anonymous said...

We really enjoyed playing this space. The local musicians who came up and talked to us seemed to really be into the music.

Unfortunately our normal drummer had a scheduling conflict but Brandon did a great job, especially since he only had one shot at a last minute sub situation, he saved the day for us and I definitely want to stay in touch with him.

Great vibe.