The ‘nexus’ of a Musical Language and Jazz

I have a personal/musical question for you. Something I am really struggling with is the nexus between my own personal musical language and that of jazz. What helped you focus on your own vocabulary most, especially when collaborating with other musicians? How did you escape the expectations so many other players seem to have that if you don’t play like so-and-so” you’re not a real alto player? I welcome any advice you have.

Well, an interesting question. One part of your question I can answer easily. I NEVER think about ‘Jazz’ and I NEVER worry about what others expect me to play or expect my style to be.

As to the first part of your question, if you think about any labels at all this will restrict your creativity. For the most part the pioneers of any kind of music were not thinking in terms of labels or style names. You can think about a particular ‘form’ (say a particular kind of cycle or whatever) but I never think in terms of what are called styles, not even what people think is supposed to my style. I don’t think in terms of styles and I don’t consider myself as having a style. Creating with no style in mind, playing without playing, composing without composing. I only concentrate on what I am trying to say (more on this below). So as far as I am concerned, there is no ‘nexus’ between the dynamic language (meaning always changing) that I am currently involved with and so-called ‘Jazz’, because I refuse to accept that ‘Jazz’ exists. ‘Jazz’ for me is the not-so-creative part that most people relate to when they hear some forms from the past. I don’t know if I am being clear, but I have never considered the music of people like Duke Ellington, Don Byas, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill – I have never considered this creative tradition ‘Jazz’. I don’t care what others call it and I don’t even pay much attention to what these people themselves (i.e. the musicians) call it. I’m just giving you my honest opinion about this. So there is no ‘nexus’ for me, I don’t need to worry about any kind of consistency as I only deal with trying to be as truthful and consistent within myself as possible – in all areas of life. I think that if I can stay in that space, live with that vibration, then the other things take care of themselves.

Ultimately I believe that humans are the living embodiment of creativity, we don’t need to ‘try’ to be creative, we just need to have knowledge of what we are – and the creativity naturally comes from us being in harmony with our true nature.

This is the simplest way I can say this.

As to the second part, I NEVER worry about what others expect me to play (except for the people that are in the group at that moment we are trying to create something). This for me is one of the biggest traps a musician can fall into. If you have a story (and everyone does) then I believe you should tell this story. I actually believe that the most important story to tell is being told over and over throughout the centuries (the story about the principle of CREATION), but this is a different point than the one I want to make now.

Generally speaking, doing what others expect you to do is a big trap that can never lead you to be and express who you are. All of the greats have followed the beat of their own drummer. Once you start worrying about the opinions of others, then your creativity is doomed. This is my opinion anyway.

Now as far as collaborating with other musicians, you will find that when you are creative, then you tend to be attracted to and attract other like-minded creative individuals. Then forming collaborations is no problem because, for the most part, these creative individuals would not expect you to sound like someone else. But the only problem with this is that you need to be very strong with your convictions and ideas, because these creative people – although very strong – are in the minority. Most people tend to imitate with pay very little attention to their own creativity. Now this may seem strange in that music itself is a creative activity on one level, but as you may well know, just because you play music does not mean you are a creative person.

In my case my focus has always been on what I am trying to say (using music as a sonic symbolic language) and how do I want to say it. When I was coming up learning how to play on the South Side of Chicago the older cats were always stressing “get your own sound”, “find out what you want to say”, “what’s your story” and stuff like that. Since they all sounded pretty much unique from each other I interpreted this to mean that I needed to find my own way musically to say what I wanted to say. In other words, I need to find my own musical language to tell my story in my own way. So then began the search, even before I could play anything even a little well. This meant that I was learning the basics of music and at the same time figuring out what I want to say and how do I want to say it using music as my language.

The funny thing is, I STILL feel like that is exactly where I am now! I am still very much trying to learn the BASICS of music, or I should say that now I am trying to learn the BASIS of music even more than before. And I am definitely still trying to work out the what, why and how through the language of music.

You know, what really clarified things for me was when I got some kind of handle on ‘what am I trying to say with my music’. In other words it is one thing to play music with emotional feeling and expressiveness. It is quite another to try to express very specific ideas through your music. All humans are born with emotion as a basic language, even babies have this, for the most part it is the only language we possess initially. But there is more to us than emotion, feeling and emotion are not the same thing. Feeling actually encompasses emotion but other forms of sensation as well, physical and mental sensation and impressions and even spiritual sensations and impressions.

We often hear of people talking about ‘tell a story’ with your music, or even with a solo, but what does this really mean? Well, it is much too complex to go into detail in one email (I may attempt to write a small book on this one day) but I think that it simply means the same thing as ‘telling a story’ normally would mean to a person. But what I found out is that I needed to look at what ‘telling a story’ meant in ancient times to people a long time ago. Because ‘telling a story’ then was not exactly the same thing as ‘telling a story’ is today. Back then ‘telling a story’ meant to talk about something using symbols that revealed principle(s) on multiple levels. Today ‘telling a story’ may mean, for some people, to talk about something specific, like for example a relationship you have with a woman, or something like this. So I started to look at the kinds of stories that people like Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, Parker, Coltrane, etc. were telling along with other kinds of music from Africa, Asia etc. I wanted to find out what these stories were and how were they being told musically.

This helped me a lot because at this point I began to focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of what I was trying to say musically, and the ‘how’ part took care of itself. In my very early years I was focusing more rhythms, melodies, harmonies, forms, phrasing, and things like that. But even so I eventually found that there was a connection between when I was intuitively figuring out what and how to play and this later period when I was more into the message part of what I was trying to say. And the connection was me! I mean, the story I was trying to tell was within me, and this same ‘me’ was what was attracted to the various rhythms, melodies, etc., when I was expressing myself creatively, so the common denominator was that of me being honest with myself, as honest as possible at all times. This is not small feat because fear is what normally keeps us from being honest with ourselves.

Regarding compositions, I always wrote songs about something, so there was always a subject matter at hand. Ultimately there is no difference between composition and improvisation for me. I consider improvisation ‘spontaneous composition’, it is just a matter of the method of creation. Spontaneous Composition requires that you develop the ability to create things in real time, in the moment. So you need to develop skills that address these problems. But the things that I want to create spontaneous are no different than the things I want to create with preconceived compositions. Many of my so-called preconceived compositions start off as spontaneous compositions, and I may notate them later (or maybe not). What I work on a lot is the kinds of sonic forms (rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, tonal, shapes, etc.) that will form the symbols in my symbolic library, and this is the basis of my musical language. Then I work on internalizing these forms so that I can create these forms and others similar to them spontaneously by feeling. But I am not just choosing forms randomly or just according to what I want to hear or like to hear. The forms are a big part of what I want to say, as they themselves are the sonic symbols that carry these multiple level messages. Finally, since I work in a group setting, its important that the people in my group have some internalized understanding of how to create this structures spontaneously, so that we can all create a composition spontaneously. For me its not about just my solo, its about composing the sonic forms that tell the story. Since the instrument I play, saxophone, is a monophonic instrument, then to create with multiple colors I need to work with other instruments. So these other players have to have the sensibilities necessary to accomplish this, and there is no other way than that of training ourselves to be able to do this spontaneously. Since the details of the story are always changing, then I am talking about a mutable concept here, one that needs constant adjustment as the ideas grow. It takes time, but we humans are a very adaptable species.



13 Responses to “The ‘nexus’ of a Musical Language and Jazz”
  1. Bill Mithoefer says:

    I think that the point you make about what story-telling through music, narrative and what the actual telling of a story means is a very fruitful avenue for exploration. Reading of Rajasthani folk singers, who can play and sing songs encompassed in a narrative that can take a month to finish (I might be exaggerating as it could be 3 days or 2 weeks,) and what happened when they learned to write the words down. The singers who learned to write the words down had a much harder time keeping the songs in memory.

    Also, after seeing the movie “Ten Canoes,” I was struck by the Aboriginal method of telling a story, as an elder described it, they had to move along all of the branches of the tree. Instead of a typically Western (or not) linear narrative, the narrator would say and then this happened or this or such and such, taking the listener along multiple branches of story. In some ways this is where the temporal elements you mention can be exploited through multiple instruments, each telling different branches of a story.

    Unfortunately, I’m not really articulating this very effectively, but these are some of the things that were brought to mind from reading your comment above. Wondering if you have any thoughts on these subjects. Salutations from Portland, OR.

  2. mbase says:

    Hmmm, What is your source that you are referring to for the Rajasthani folk singers?

    Ann Grodzins Gold has written a little about this in the book ‘A Carnival of Parting: The Tales of King Bharthari and King Gopi Chand’

    Rajasthan borders an area that I am really interested in which includes the ancient sites of the Indus-Saraswati (Indus-Valley) civilization. Even though the language has not been fully deciphered, there have been very interesting attempts to figure it out and the results show that the language was similar to that of ancient Egypt and ancient Sumer (two other areas that I’m interested in) in that the writing was basically logo-syllabic, which is a writing system where the symbols can function as either words (logograms) or sounds (phonetic symbols). Since much of this overlaps with music, in particular with my approach, I’m very interested in this type of thing and I’ve been checking into it here and there.

    I am very interested in these earlier ideas about how to represent ideas in symbolic form, either using sound (including music) writing, story telling (including myths and parables), sign language, dance, etc. It is extremely interesting to me how a symbol can have a mundane meaning and a spiritual meaning at the same time while representing two different words that sound the similar and are written similar. Its also interesting that the word ‘Homophony’ refers to both two or more words that sound the same but have different origins or meaning (like hair and hare) and also to the style of music where the melody is moving in a chordal style and there is no independence of voices (there are other musical meanings also; a type of polyphony with a dominant melody accompanied by chords, a soloist with a rhythm section accompaniment, a musical texture where one melody line dominates while the others remain in the background, etc.)

    You also find this characteristic (different signs meaning different things but representing the same sound, or the same sign representing the same sound but meaning different things) in the myths of this time. Many of the myths (i.e. story-telling) have multiple levels of meaning. This is how I am trying to construct my music also, using this kind of approach.

    Indus-Valley script expert Asko Parpola in his work ‘Deciphering the Indus Script’ summed up the main developments in the evolution of expressing ideas through writing as follows:


    The human ability to analyze language and to represent it with written symbols has evolved gradually. In the first stage of “pre-writing”, pictures stood for whole sentences or narrations. The next step was to break sentences into separately written words, or rather, morphemes (that is, the smallest meaningful units) which include not only lexical roots but also grammatical markers. In the beginning it was almost exclusively the root morphemes carrying the lexical meaning that were marked in writing, while the grammatical affixes which the root happened to have in any given context were omitted in the script, being left to be guessed and supplied by the reader. This form of writing has been called “nuclear.”

    Occasionally, however, some basic grammatical affixes were marked even in the earliest script, the archaic Sumerian. Gradually all the grammatical affixes became represented in writing. This complex “logo-syllabic” script demanded many hundreds of graphemes, each of which could have several different meanings. The next major step in the history of writing was the simplification of the system into a “syllabic” script, where only about one hundred signs, each with just one fixed phonetic value, could be used to write about 90% of the texts. The syllabic script was still somewhat clumsy, but eventually, with the successive emergence of the consonantal alphabet and the full alphabet, human speech could accurately and economically be mirrored in writing.

    So I see many parallels between this and music. And of course I would since the main goal here is the communication of ideas and the systems of music and languages are sonic systems developed by Humans after all, that is the overall connection.



  3. Bill Mithoefer says:

    Hi Steve,

    Will try and find the source. I believe it may have been something as mundane as the New Yorker. Will try and figure it out. Thanks for the response.

    cheers, Bill

  4. Matt Fripp says:

    Hey Steve Colemanne

    I really love the rhyhtms that u guys play 🙂

    Theres a beauty in the random

  5. mbase says:

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the props. I’m not really sure what you mean by ‘random’ unless your message got cut off.

  6. Twister says:

    Hey Steve,

    A russian musician (that’s right – with the lowercase ‘m’) loves ya =)

    It is pretty much interesting in what you’re saying about the music. The creativity, story, language, signs, symbols, senses, sensations..

    I know that you have an experience of jamming with the Hindustany (or Carnatic) performers.. Can you tell please, just how was it?

    I am really thrilled by South Indian music, as it has so much in rhythm that i have not noticed in the music of North. Have you any thoughts about that? How do you incorporate it in your own playing?

    And.. there was an interview.. guess I really got the phrase of someone of your teachers.. Smthn ’bout “just two notes enough” =) Well.. That’s goes off the topic..

    Thanks! And keep going =)

    • mbase says:


      I never been Russia, would like to go some day.

      I’ve only been to the south of India two times, so I would not say I am that familiar with the concepts there. I’ve talked to and played with musicians from there also. It was and is a great experience. I went to the south because I was more attracted to what appeared to be the more complex rhythmic concepts. There is a musician named Trilok Gurtu who originally suggested to me that I go there, Trilok used to play a lot with a drummer named Doug Hammond, and I apprenticed in Doug’s group when I was younger, I learned a great deal about rhythm from him (look up Doug and Trilok on YouTube or Google them).

      The interview you refer to was probably me talking about something that the great master tenor saxophonist from Chicago Von Freeman told me. I asked him what was his approach to studying harmony (he was self-studied, he did not use books). Von told told me that at first he started with one note, and he tried to see all the things that could be done with one note. After some time he moved on to two notes, and he told me that this was more difficult, and he tried to see all the things that could be done with two notes. After even more time, he moved on to 3 notes, and so on. After doing this kind of study for some time Von told me that he realized that everything could be done with two notes. So I’ve spent my life since trying to figure out what he was talking about, it was an amazing piece of information that he gave me that has all kinds of implications.

  7. Twister says:

    Also, what about Bartok?.. Serialism?..

    And, what about maqam?

    Did you interesed in this stuff?

    This appears to be a much more intriguing than, say, raga structures..

    • mbase says:

      I love Bartok and I’m very interested in his music. More recently I’ve been checkin out the music of Danish composer Per Nørgård, whom I consider one of the greatest composers (not just one of the greatest living composers, because he is still living, but one of the greatest composers of all time. Nørgård at certain periods in his career had some serial aspects to his music, but for me serial techniques are tools, and i’ve never been into one tool specifically, and I have not concentrated on serialism. I don’t know much about Maqam, Dastgah or any other kinds of modal structures in North African, Mesopotamian or Central Asian music, but I would like to learn someday. So I certainly cannot compare to Raga, although based on the history of the people in these areas there must be some similarities, since the music comes from the people, not the other way around.

  8. MusicStudent says:

    After reading this I was curious what ‘genre’ you would have listed on your myspace page (you know the three genres people have under their names)…when I checked it was blank! haha.

  9. ED says:

    Wow, Steve, just came across this flowing thru sites researching the word
    ‘dauwhe’ from Carter’s entilted recording via night by night blog (?)
    then Ethan’s blog and now this. Wonderful, wonderful stuff…..
    I, in all ways -greatly admire you, and remain inspired by you.
    Please check = Taxonomy Of A Unity , Dr T Braithwaite and
    Dr Grant Venerable’s Managing In A 5 Dimension Economy
    all ways, all the best, ED

  10. Trick Stimpno says:

    Hello Steve

    your music is amazing. Thank you

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