A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Esther Cidoncha via

To call Steve Coleman “influential” is an understatement. Vijay Iyer, one of the many groundbreaking composer-performers who began their careers apprenticing with Steve, says, “To me, Steve’s as important as Coltrane. He has contributed an equal amount to the history of the music. He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists.” Artists like Don Byron, Cassandra Wilson, and others agree, and elaborate (see our expanded list of testimonials here).

Raised on Chicago’s turbulent South Side, Steve began his relationship with the saxophone at age thirteen, and soon discovered the music of Charlie Parker, a favorite of his father’s. During his college years, the saxophonist prioritized the guidance of Chicago veterans like Von Freeman and Bunky Green and an education only possible through listening to the greats and trial by fire on the bandstand. Before long, Steve moved to New York and began performing with the big bands of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Cecil Taylor, and Sam Rivers.

A band that Steve put together with the cornetist Graham Haynes to hone their craft while busking in New York’s busy streets evolved into Five Elements, Steve’s flagship ensemble and one of the most influential outfits in recent memory (and on the artists who perform at The Jazz Gallery). A concept known as M-Base has bound the group’s many explorations, which are informed by Steve’s travels and studies of African diasporic traditions from around the globe. These collaborative explorations have informed the conceptions of some of the most innovative minds in our music, including Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Geri Allen, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks, Vijay Iyer, Ambrose Akinmusire, and countless others. Steve’s work is documented on over twenty five releases, many of which can be downloaded for free here.

But the scope of Steve’s influence isn’t limited to his collaborators. He’s been presenting acclaimed weekly workshops at The Jazz Gallery almost every season since the fall of 2004, where anyone with a thirst for knowledge can go to absorb the infinitude he has to offer. Steve likes to think of himself “like a [West African] griot”; he hopes to function “like a person that’s documenting something in music, telling a story and passing information down.”

We encourage you to visit the incredible resource which is Steve’s own website, with several scores and essays – as well as almost two dozen albums – available for free download. The author also recommends this feature in The Wall Street Journal, as well as this extensive 2008 interview via Innerviews.

After a lengthy history of involvement as a key figure at The Jazz Gallery, we welcome Steve back with the latest configuration of his ensemble, Five Elements, next Friday and Saturday. Each of the three other musicians on board for this engagement – the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, the bassist Anthony Tidd, and the drummer Sean Rickman – all have an extensive history playing in the group, but never all at once until recently.

Update: this performance has been selected as a Critics’ Pick by The New York Times and Time Out New York:

★ Steve Coleman and Five Elements (Friday and Saturday) Mr. Coleman’s alto saxophone cuts cleanly through the complex compositional forms on his most recent album, “The Mancy of Sound,” released on Pi last year. The album featured Five Elements, his signature band, which has been a stable proposition of late. But for this weekend engagement he re-enlists just one partner from the band’s recent lineup, the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and otherwise calls on a muscular rhythm team he was using about a decade ago: Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. At 9 and 10:30 p.m., Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, at Spring Street, South Village, (212) 242-1063,; $20, $10 for members. (Chinen)
-The New York Times 

Steve Coleman, a saxist and composer known for his masterful balance of braininess and groove, doesn’t always receive the credit due an artist whose band was a training ground for many of today’s rising stars (including Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey), but his recent association with the vital Pi label is helping to right that wrong. Here Coleman heads up a quartet with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman.
-Time Out New York

Wondering what it’ll sound like? We think nothing short of spectacular, but you can hear some recent live footage of this group. Check out Shape One and Shape Two, or just get your tickets today.