From the January 2017 issue of DRUM! | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo by Mathieu Bitton

Mark Colenburg grew up in St. Louis with both feet rooted in jazz. His first gigs were in churches, but after earning berths with the All Suburban Jazz Ensemble and the Missouri All State Jazz Ensemble, he seemed on course to make his impression in that genre specifically. Then he headed east to audition for the Mannes School Of Music. They welcomed him as a student, sweetened the deal with a scholarship, and provided an entree into New York’s musical community. Shortly after that, he landed his first big-league gig, with the rapper Common. That in turn led to work with Q-Tip and other hip-hop headliners, as well as jazzers Cecil McBee, Chico Freeman, Kenny Garrett, and Stefon Harriis.

“Playing with Common and Q-Tip opened that whole world up,” Colenburg says. “They poured so much information to me. That’s how I was able to link all my experiences together.”

It also led toward his ongoing musical relationship with keyboard innovator Robert Glasper. They had met back in St. Louis through a mutual friend, trumpeter Keyon Harrold. Colenburg had also befriended drummer Chris Dave before leaving for New York. So when word came down that Dave was moving on from his gig with the Robert Glasper Experiment, Colenburg got the call to take his place.

“It was just a natural thing,” he shrugs. “[Bassist] Derrick Hodge was doing Rob’s Trio and Experiment, and he and I had worked together with Q-Tip. From the public’s perspective, the energy shifted when I followed Chris because I have my own approach. But it was about jazz meets other genres — jazz meets pop, jazz meets R&B, jazz meets hip-hop. And I was already doing that.”

Here’s where Colenburg says his education took a different turn, in which references to genre lost relevance and pure creativity became the only imperative. “The goal was just to play music and be as expressive as possible. I started to see that it’s all relative. It’s all just music. So my approach changed from thinking, ‘This is hip-hop. This is R&B.’ Now it’s, ‘This is music.’”

That doesn’t mean that genre references are irrelevant. Now, on every date or recording session, or even when he’s leading a workshop, Colenburg begins by asking himself a few questions. “Who am I playing with? What influences do they have? That triggers the conversation we’re going to have and what my possibilities can be. Even Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes are totally different voices. So I’ll use different genres for a reference, so people can have a base for building their vocabulary. If they don’t have that, then they can’t be part of the conversation because they didn’t learn the language. That makes them do things that may not be cohesive with other people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if an artist calls for a particular thing and they don’t know how to express that.”

Once the groundwork is laid, Colenburg concludes, the most interesting work begins as “I try to dismantle the boxes that genres can create sometimes.”

On ArtScience, the latest Robert Glasper Experiment project, Colenburg, Glasper, Hodge, and singer/saxophonist Casey Benjamin built their music on a foundation of pop-song form. Many of these tracks are easy on the ears, with tuneful melodies that make them ideal material for mainstream crooners. Yet these songs were just as much the product of collective effort as a free improv exercise.

“We didn’t bring a blueprint into the studio,” Colenburg says. “We wanted to be free. We’d come up with our tunes on the spot. Or maybe I’d bring an idea to the table and it was like, ‘Let’s just swing and see what happens.’ That it turned into whatever it would be.”

Rather than share song sketches in advance, Colenburg did send the other musicians examples of what types of sound he hoped to use once they got rolling. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted musically, but I knew what kinds of feel I hoped to get,” he explains. “My goal was to be able to translate whatever was needed for whatever song and not have to restrict everyone musically by programming parts.”

The songs on ArtScience range from straight 4/4 to more intricate and alternating meters. On almost every track, though, Colenburg strived to find the simplest parts, ones that would de-emphasize complexity and, consistent with the album’s pop-oriented compositions, make the rhythms accessible. “In My Mind,” for example, is based more or less on a 9/4 time signature, yet it goes down easy. That, Colenburg insists, is no accident.

“The better the player is with time, the more a song can feel like 4/4,” he says. “It only feels odd when the players bring attention to that fact. That’s one thing I like about African music: They do all kinds of times, but the approach is not to say, ‘Check this out, it’s in 5/4,’ or whatever. They just go with the flow of the music.”

That quality has plenty of precedence in Anglo-American culture too. “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is a great example,” Colenburg points out. “It’s mainly in 3/4, but when people sing it, they’re not counting that. They’re just singing the song. That’s the approach: You can know all the technical stuff, but you don’t pay attention to it. You just play the song.”

Through most of ArtScience, that means paring the drum parts down to basics. Most of Glasper’s lyrics are romantic, “a conversation between a man and a woman,” as Colenburg says. “And I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna kill that mood, like all of a sudden bring in some fills. See, drums are no different from any instrument, as far as accompanying the elements of music. Sometimes, when you’re playing with an orchestra, all you need is one snare or cymbal roll for the whole composition. Whatever the music, it’s about translating the composer’s ideas. That’s how I look at it.”

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