Steve Colson
 
 

The 45-year history of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) has included plenty of horn men, bassists, and drummers?—?but very few pianists. The most famous of these are Amina Claudine Myers and Muhal Richard Abrams. In fact, the current AACM roster includes only one other pianist of note; lesser known to the general public but highly regarded by his fellow musicians: Adegoke Steve Colson, who has continually explored and refined his compositional concepts since joining the organization in the early 1970s.

The Untarnished Dream, Colson’s first recording as a leader in five years, offers an unvarnished portrait of this distinctive and uncompromising artist. As has always been the case with Colson’s music, the album also features the complimentary vocals of his wife, Iqua Colson, in a set of rigorously focused music that comes as a blast of fresh air. In nine compositions spanning more than three decades, Colson re-introduces us to a spare, starkly beautiful jazz aesthetic that draws as much from Bud Powell as it does from Muhal Abrams?—?and also from the intervening figures who have contributed so much to the rich history of piano jazz.

“I’ve never done a piano trio album” says Colson, whose previous discs have employed such artists as the saxophonists Joseph Jarman, Douglas Ewart, and T.K. Blue. “But I’ve been playing so long with [bassist] Reggie Workman and [drummer] Andrew Cyrille, and Iqua kind of pushed me into the trio idea. I insisted she do a couple of tunes, at least; that’s how we settled on the lineup for this album.”

As for the material on The Untarnished Dream, “I have a lot of compositions,” Colson explains. “Now the thing is, when you record, you usually tend to settle on a couple of tunes you’ve been playing in performance. But I’m always writing, and I always have a stockpile of material. So we went with tunes that would provide a contrast: some were written some time ago, and some in just the last year.”

The “golden oldies” include “Iqua’s Waltz,” written in 1976, while two compositions?—?the boppish “Circumstantial” and “Maybe”?—?have been in Colson’s book for about a decade. More recent are “Digression” and “Parallel Universe,” which Colson wrote in the summer of 2008. The first of these, with Iqua’s lyric, has a rubato melody and an amoebic structure, fitting into a body of such compositions that Colson has forged during his career. It yields a suitably dreamy, discursive solo; the minimalist dynamics and emotional restraint are matched by Iqua’s lack of vibrato and her unsentimental inflection, which point the piece toward spoken-word poetry. “Parallel Universe,” on the other hand, builds upon its open-ended form with stuttering phrases from the piano and then the drums, maintaining a compelling tension throughout the performance. Then there’s “And It Was Set in Ivory,” a piece that spans the decades all on its own.

“Yeah, I wrote it some time ago,” says Colson. “But lately, with all the focus on Darfur, and problems that have recurred?—?involving oil as a commodity, or political turmoil, using food as a weapon?—?I said maybe we should bring that one back, since we’ve always put ourselves out there in certain social areas. That includes habitat shortage, global warming?—?it’s all part of that. It’s why we have the bells and gongs on that track. It’s a sort of cleansing ritual.” In the case of “Triumph of the Outcasts”?—?which Colson initially recorded on his very first disc in 1980, titled Triumph!?—?Colson didn’t need to bring the tune back himself: it seems to have developed a second life without his help. In 2008 the Colsons learned that the original LP version of their self-produced Triumph! was selling on eBay for $200-$300, an indication of its value among collectors. (Luckily, the Colsons had a box of the LPs in their basement!) Shortly later, the illustration from that album was selected as one of 200 covers pictured in the book Freedom, Rhythm & Sound (published in the fall of 2009 by the cutting-edge British label Soul Jazz Records); and “Lateen,” another track from that same disc, was included on a CD accompanying the book. Responding to the revival of interest in Triumph!, the Colsons recently agreed to reissue it on vinyl, on CD, and as a download.

“It’s a vindication of where we were in the 80s,” Colson admits. “We were gaining some great experience, doing our own music without the help of a major label. We were trying to pursue our music, and making it available ourselves. When we put out Triumph!, we didn’t realize how far ahead we were. And now that the industry has changed so drastically”?—?with major and even minor labels becoming a thing of the past?—?“it’s just about us trying to continue the whole dynamic of the AACM, which is musicians having some control over their own destiny.”

The Colsons now live in Montclair, New Jersey, not far from Newark, where Steve was born in 1949; he grew up in nearby East Orange before attending Northwestern University just outside Chicago. At the end of his freshman year Colson and a classmate, saxophonist Chico Freeman, passed a poster on campus advertising a performance by Fred Anderson, now revered as the father figure of Chicago’s avant-garde scene. “We had no idea who he was,” Colson recalls, “but the poster looked interesting. So we went to see Fred. The group included Fred Hopkins on bass and Steve McCall on drums, [who would soon form the rhythm section of the AACM trio, AIR].And we’re getting gassed by the music. When I realized that this was the AACM, and that the AACM was in Chicago, I realized it was an opportunity to check out this big city nearby. And when I did, I thought I should stay.”

At Northwestern, Colson also met his future wife (a Chicago native). After graduation, they both joined the AACM, in 1973, and established themselves in Chicago; in 1982, they moved back east. Colson continued to focus on composition and performance, joining groups led by Reggie Workman and then, in 1985, David Murray’s critically acclaimed octet. But to further help support his wife and two sons, he began a concurrent career as a college instructor. In 1990, he joined the faculty at Bloomfield College, where he taught piano and developed a course tracing the African-American influence on history through its music?—?“from the 16th century to Motown,” he says. Earlier this decade, Colson also began teaching at Montclair State, where he is an adjunct professor in Music and World Cultures.

At Bloomfield, Colson also was recruited to teach music technology. This meant he first had to learn music technology. “They dragged me in kicking and screaming, dealing with MIDI and how to input music into the computer. But it was really a blessing, because I wound up with a couple of commissions to write large compositions, and I couldn’t have written them all out by hand.”

Throughout his teaching career, Colson has remained busy as an improvising pianist, though not on the nightclub scene in New York. “It’s really a continuation of the AACM thing,” he explains, “being independent of the clubs, able to do my own stuff at festivals and colleges, and using some of the associations with people from Chicago.” To date his collaborators have included such giants as drummer Billy Hart, trombonist George Lewis, trumpeter Leo Smith, saxists Henry Threadgill and David Murray, and violinist Leroy Jenkins. His compositions have been recorded by “Hannibal” Marvin Peterson, Oliver Lake’s Trio Three and John Hicks. Colson has also reached international audiences, appearing on European and Japanese labels, and in 2004, he presented his music with a 21-piece orchestra at the Sons d’hiver festival in France?—?a concert later aired on French television.

“All in all, we have quite a bit of material now,” he says, reflecting on a musically substantial and personally rewarding career. “So it’s a matter of just trying to divide it up to get it all out there. But it’s a good time for us now.”