Like most contemporary jazz musicians, Michael Coleman takes an ecumenical approach to his medium. He grew up listening to rock performers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, took piano lessons from an incredibly free-thinking woman in his hometown of Brooklyn, and later played a child's bass drum in the old-timey band Jug Free America. He plays piano every Monday night at San Francisco's Grant & Green jazz jam. His East Oakland apartment is filled with vintage keyboards procured from Craigslist and eBay, including a little red Nord with 61 keys, a Wurlitzer from the 1970s, and an old Yamaha organ that he plays in a pop band called the Attachments. He's also got an upright Miki piano that he practices on up to five hours a day. Coleman seems traditional in some ways, but he's also an omnivorous consumer of genre. He treats jazz as a protean thing.
Generally that's a good way to be if you're working in a scene that's trying to stave off extinction. Currently, all the rising stars in jazz are racing to make their music more widely accessible: They're sampling hip-hop, incorporating vamps from Radiohead, and riffing off pop tunes. Coleman took that tack when he recorded Short Stories, the debut album for his jazz group, Beep!, which features Rob Schwartz on drums and Nathaniel Brenner on bass. (Schwartz was later replaced by Sam Ospovat.) Among the thirteen tunes are several standards — including a taut version of the Cole Porter ballad "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" — a tribute to ninety-year-old pianist Hank Jones, and versions of rock songs by Weezer and Simon & Garfunkel. For a first-time bandleader, Coleman comes off as pretty imaginative, but the album apparently only revealed one side of him. Since then, he's gone in a much funkier direction, becoming enamored of old baroque fugues and 19th-century Romantic music. He's decided to move forward by reaching back to the past.
That's a lot dicier than it sounds. Coleman traces his interest in classical music to his undergraduate years at Oberlin. He majored in post-colonial history, but took a lot of music classes. In his spare time he played in a noise-rock band called Screaming Death Machine, which had a pretty vast repertoire. "We did Mahler's Urlicht but like, super-noisy. And we'd do like a Monk tune and make its just super hardcore." With all those influences stewing in his brain, Coleman toyed with the idea of mixing classical and jazz music in a more concrete way. "I find a lot of classical music resonates more with me," he said, explaining that he loved the trickiness of the old composers with their complex harmonies and multiple-line voicings.
At that time, however, Coleman's ambitions far outpaced his ability to read the notes on a staff. His childhood piano teacher had used a rather unrigorous play-by-ear methodology, allowing all her students to learn music by rote, and improvise wherever possible. Moreover, Coleman says he wasn't a natural reader (although his bandmates disagree). He got held back in first grade for not reading words, and ledger lines in music were even harder for him. It took him a long time to slog through the notes on a page. To make matters worse, he got a debilitating case of tendonitis in his senior year of college, and had to stop playing altogether.
For a piano player, that can mean the end of a life's work. For Coleman, it meant five months of anguish. "My hands hurt all the time," he said. "I went to acupuncture. I went to every kind of doctor. I tried everything." Finally, someone recommended he take piano lessons with Judith Meites, a former Julliard prodigy who sustained similar kinds of hand injuries during her career. Meites taught Coleman how to redistribute the weight in his arm using an "effortless mastery" technique. She also helped him better understand classical music by elucidating all the complex harmonies and interlacing themes. She hipped him to Bach fugues, Chopin waltzes, and Kinderszenen, a collection of short pieces by Robert Schumann. Coleman was enchanted. He particularly liked the Kinderszenen because it comprised several self-contained vignettes, each with its own storyline.
Although he didn't really have the chops to be a classical pianist, Coleman found a way to bring his new love interest to the public. Last summer, he formed a new jazz combo called Schumann's Humanns, with Atwal on drums, Kasey Knudsen on alto sax, and Gabe Davis on bass. The group's first assignment was to reinterpret the Kinderszenen in a jazz template. Coleman rearranged eleven out of the fifteen pieces, often pulling apart the harmonies or changing the time signature. In the piece "Pleading Child" he took the piano part and split it into three voices — one for sax, one for bass, and one that Coleman played on glockenspiel. He reconfigured another piece, "By the Fireside," by rewriting the melody and putting it in an odd meter, 7/8. Then he added chords to the bridge to make it sound jazzier. Coleman altered the più mosso section of "Frightening" by giving the bassline to the saxophone and writing a new rhythmic part for the piano. He took Kinderszenen's most famous piece, a lullaby called "Reverie," and completely changed the tone. "Kasey plays the melody but really slowly — like, rubato — over the time, and we play really free behind her in a different key ... so the effect that we wanted to get with that was to have this beautiful melody set against this really dark, shifting sound."
Ostensibly Schumann's Humanns seems narrow in scope, but it actually gives Coleman a lot of latitude in terms of execution. Plus it highlights his greatest strongpoint — capturing the sound of a particular era, and finding a way to make it contemporary. Coleman took this approach on Short Stories by rendering each song as a tribute to some predecessor — "The Man That Broke the Dragon's Heart" sounds like Duke Ellington, whereas "Chorale" borrows elements from Bach and Paul Bley. Coleman says it's not that unusual to be incorporating such elements in a medium that's constantly revisiting its roots. He points out that jazz pianist Brad Mehldau recently started incorporating classical elements into his music, as did saxophonist Benny Golson, who featured a Chopin waltz on his last album.
Not to mention those 19th-century Romantic composers have a certain allure that you can't find in Thom Yorke or Paul Simon. Coleman tried to explain it, pointing to Schumann's portrait on the inside cover of Kinderszenen. The composer had an ascot, a dutchboy haircut, and a dour expression. Born a century and a half later, he might have been a mod with bipolar disorder and a lot of disdain for current popular music. "He's got great hair," Coleman said, grinning affectionately at the picture. "He's kind of a hipster."