Category : M-Base

The music of alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman features the most challenging multi-layered drum chants unmatched by any artist of the 20th century to date. This is a firsthand look into the rhythmic artistry that develops advanced technique and skill set.


This chant was written in 1996 during my early days with Five Elements. As mentioned earlier, it was part of what the band was working on during the Oakland/Stanford University Residency in the summer of 1996. Being that I was new in the band along with bassist David Dyson, Steve constructed drum chants nightly on our first European Tour. It was a bit nerve racking for me because I didn’t understand why he was so particular about things. Over time, he was grooming me for things to come. The easy thing about this is it begins with the kick drum. The flow of the chant has a certain swing and sway, not rhythmically abrasive and jagged. The bass line moves with the shape of the drum chant instead of against it. As you practice this and increase the tempo, it takes on an Afro Cuban rhythmic feel. This greatly influences the way I perform and interpret this chant in live performances. Adding the cowbell creates a Latin flavor that fits well with the African triplet feel. During the performance you can hear how nice it feels to play across the bar lines, especially with the bell of the ride cymbal. Once the framework is realized, the expanding and contracting sound of this chant takes many shapes.

Law of Balance

Here, we have a clave in five over a chant in six. The chant nods to time spent in Cuba and Africa. I have been performing this chant (on and off) for 21 years and it still stands as one of the most challenging to date. The best way to learn this chant is to study each part separately and slowly. Of course, this is the mantra by now. First, the five clave takes eight times to meet the top of the drum chant in six. The drum chant in six takes five times to meet the top of the five clave. The hat keeps every downbeat in six. Written in 6/8, the whole chant is 20 bars. So that’s three ways of understanding this. As far as the drumming, the challenging parts start at the seventh time of the five clave. This happens at bar 16. Specifically with the snare and clave played together. It will take some time for you to work out the spacing and sticking required to pull it all off smoothly. Have fun!

Fire “Bird & Them”

This video lesson has something unique to the others: lyrics and rhyme. “Fire” is another composition by Steve Coleman in which the lyrics to the rhyme form the drum chant. There are many ways to compose and this is an example of using cadence and phrasing of words to form the actually basis of the composition. Charlie “Bird” Parker and John Coltrane are the topics and inspiration of this rhyme. The rhyme is pretty simple, easy to remember and recite over and over. Being that Bird was before Coltrane, the rhyme describes how Bird’s influence on Western Music was succeeded by Coltrane’s influence. That’s all the rhyme is about. One theory behind all of this is the basis of Rhythm and Blues in the pocket of the drum chant. This is no different than how many producers create the Hip Hop art form dating back to The Last Poets in the sixties. I added a vocal count in on the play along mp3 so you know exactly where to come in with the first kick drum where I say “Top”. There are two bars of 9/8 leading in as you come in on the first beat of the third bar. Notice how the bass and guitars have a rest on the first beat.

Change The Guard

This chant became a warm up exercise along with being one of the most challenging chants to perform at fast tempos. “Change The Guard” has alternate titles and was written by alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. This lesson is based off the version recorded on Tao of Mad Phat. There are numerous live versions on audio and video and this composition and chant have been the skeleton for many performances where other classics are superimposed into this particular sequence. Most Western chants start with a kick drum and a crash. It is the most common familiarity in Western drum set concept. However, “Change The Guard” begins with the snare followed by a double kick and a ride bell pattern. It sounds backwards. Then there is the form that is S S L or Short, Short, Long. You can call this the framework from which the composition is rhythmically based. There are two sections that flip flop triggered by a horn cue I play on rhythm guitar during the performance with the accompaniment. When I auditioned for Steve in April of 1996, I walked into Ultra Sound rehearsal studios in NYC on West 30th in Midtown Manhattan. It seemed as if every drummer in New York City was there. I didn’t intend to nail this audition or be chosen for the band. I attended because a friend suggested it and I figured it was a fast way to meet a lot of drummers in an instant. Many of the drummers that auditioned before and after me were typical and didn’t have the ability to translate unusual rhythmic patterns on the spot. Steve was looking for a musician with quick ears and the sense to adapt in an uncomfortable situation. Next thing I know, I’m in the band and my first gig was scheduled for North Sea Jazz Festival in July that year. Steve was beginning his residency plans in which he sets up residence in a city for a couple weeks performing, woodshedding and conducting workshops. The band was in residence in Oakland, CA and Stanford University from June – August 1996 and those weeks set the pace for the following six week European Tour. I would go on to work with this band for the next 6 years until 2002. I rejoined in 2012.