More than any other living jazz musician, the alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman seeks inspiration in unlikely places. So it wasn’t all that odd to find him here on a recent Saturday, scouting locations at Bartram’s Garden, the nation’s oldest botanical garden, near the southernmost bend of the Schuylkill.
Mr. Coleman, one of the most rigorously conceptual thinkers in improvised music, was considering potential sites for a pair of major outdoor performances, on June 21, the summer solstice, and Sept. 23, the fall equinox. Those celestial dates, like the arboreal setting, represent an alignment of his interests. Some of them, anyway.
Over the last 30 years, since his debut album, Mr. Coleman, 58, has been an indefatigable outlier in jazz, engaged in esoteric but vital work on the margins. He has also been a mentor and touchstone to many in the music’s current vanguard, like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the pianist Vijay Iyer, who once declared in JazzTimes magazine that Mr. Coleman was, for him, as important a figure as John Coltrane, someone who “has contributed an equal amount to the history of the music.”
More tangible acclaim has just recently caught up to Mr. Coleman. Last year he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, which had previously been awarded to Mr. Iyer and several other former protégés, like the pianist Jason Moran. Also in 2014, Mr. Coleman received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which gave him another one this spring.
These recent windfalls helped support the creation of “Synovial Joints” (Pi Recordings), out this week and likely to be one of the best albums of the year. Mr. Coleman recorded it with the Council of Balance, a chamber agglomeration of woodwinds, percussion and strings, along with members of Five Elements, his turn-on-a-dime band. It’s a stunningly ambitious embodiment of his approach — a vibrant melding of Afro-Cuban pulse, shifting counterpoint and a wealth of ideas that would seem to have little to do with music.
Some of his most recent preoccupations have involved the human body, and at the core of “Synovial Joints” is a four-part suite of the same name, its inner workings meant to evoke the flexion and extension of joints.
In his liner notes for the album, Mr. Coleman points to moments of transition in the music that correspond to specific joint movements: saddle, pivot, ball and socket, plane. (Each movement also bears an illustrative title, as in “Synovial Joints II — Hip and Shoulder.”) But the rhythmic and textural dynamism of the music, deftly executed by the members of his ensemble, elevates the music beyond any literal interpretation. And elsewhere on the album there are pieces influenced by other things, like Amazonian birdsong and Saharan trade winds. His 2013 album, “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi), was inspired by irregularities of the human heartbeat.
Mr. Coleman lives in Allentown, Pa., an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, and under two hours from New York; the only scene he inhabits is the one that has coalesced around his music. He has a wildly discursive intellect governed by a firm, obsessive focus. During a two-hour conversation in the administrative offices of Bartram’s Garden, he spoke in voluminous bursts, articulating his ideas in quick, definitive strokes, one sentence often barreling into the next.
“It’s really hard to judge your own progress as an artist,” he said. “You can’t go by press; you can’t go by what people are saying about you, or awards. There’s no award that ever created any music. The only thing that means anything to me is: What do I know this year that’s different than what I knew two years ago? And am I doing something about it? Not just as trivia, but as information that I’m actually working with.”
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Mr. Coleman gravitated to the music of Charlie Parker, another alto saxophonist with a highly specific language of improvisation. (Parker is still the strongest echo in Mr. Coleman’s own style.) He quickly set out to establish his individuality, inspired by the advice of elders like the saxophonist Von Freeman, and by the example of experimentalists like the saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill.
Moving to New York in 1978, Mr. Coleman established a diverse portfolio as a sideman. By the mid-’80s he had formed the creative collective he calls M-BASE, whose early ranks included the alto saxophonist Greg Osby and the singer Cassandra Wilson. His music at the time suggested an organic synthesis of postbop and funk, though he was already thinking more broadly. He began forming conceptual links to all manner of complex systems: numerological, astrological, mytho-religious.
“I had a vision back in the ’80s,” he said, “and I haven’t deviated at all from it.”
He compared his accumulation of insights to the formation of geological strata, with the top layer representing just the newest and most readily accessible.
In pursuit of creative stimulus, Mr. Coleman has traveled widely: He takes a sabbatical every year, to places like India and Brazil. He has also organized residencies with his groups — comprising workshops, performances and other public activities, over the span of weeks — in locales including Cuba, France and Senegal.
“Almost everybody I’m playing with now, I met them in workshops,” Mr. Coleman said.
He will have a monthlong residency in Chicago starting in July, during which he’ll collaborate with the artist and social activist Theaster Gates, whose work combines the precepts of installation art and urban revitalization. Its finale will be a free concert on Aug. 6 at Millennium Park.
He doesn’t appear with any regularity in New York, but last month he played the Jazz Gallery with Five Elements: Jonathan Finlayson, the electric bassist Anthony Tidd and the drummer Marcus Gilmore. In two exhilarating sets, the band kept up a brisk, staccato flow, occasionally making a hard swerve from funky pointillism to a kind of speed-demon swing.
In November, Mr. Coleman makes his debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard, a mark of validation by the jazz mainstream. (In the late-’70s, he used to play there as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.)
In the meantime, Mr. Coleman will perform with Five Elements at the new Whitney Museum of American Art on June 18. A few days later comes the solstice and the first Bartram’s Garden concert, presented by Ars Nova Workshop — an opportunity to explore his sound in open space, a longtime fascination for him.
“I went through some bad years right before this recent spate of good stuff,” he said. “One of the worst periods, in terms of surviving. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t eat, but there was definitely a dip in activity.”
He paused, ever so briefly. “So, O.K., fine. When that happens, you just increase the study end. You take that opportunity to study.” (The NY Times)