Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #23 — Anthony Coleman

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

A native New Yorker born in 1955, pianist Anthony Coleman has been a key figure of the downtown scene as a composer, interpreter and improviser since the early 1980s. He started studying the piano with Jaki Byard at age 13, going on to earn degrees in composition from the New England Conservatory and Yale School of Music. Anthony – a performer as joyous as he is erudite – is a virtuoso of jazz from Jelly Roll Morton to Herbie Nichols to John Zorn, not to mention his vintage adventures in “radical Jewish culture” with his bands Sephardic Tinge and Selfhaters. About Anthony’s omnivorous musical curiosity, The New Yorker said: “You could certainly try pigeonholing Coleman, but you might as well attempt to stuff glue back into a tube.” A fine entry point into the pianist’s discography is his 2009 Tzadik release Freakish, a solo collection of Jelly Roll tunes that includes his delightful take on “The Pearls.” It’s an album that All Music Guide justly praised for having “just the right blend of poetic license and personal vision,” as well as “breathtaking dramatic command.” Other recent albums showcase Anthony as a composer, such as You (New World, 2015), The End of Summer (Tzadik, 2013), Lapidation (New World, 2007) and Pushy Blueness (Tzadik, 2006). He has contributed to dozens of Zorn projects over the years, besides collaborating with the likes of Roy Nathanson, Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas, David Krakauer and Wadada Leo Smith. Anthony has been on the faculty of NEC since 2005, along with teaching at Mannes at the New School,  Bennington College and Bard MFA. He performed solo in the Sound It Out series in 2014, and he has played the series four times as part of Fay Victor’s Herbie Nichols Sung band, as well as with Joe Hertenstein’s Futuredrone and in a trio led by Michaël Attias. Anthony returns to the series on May 11, 2018, as part of a solo double-bill with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

King of New Orleans Jazz by Jelly Roll Morton & the Red Hot Peppers (RCA).

  1. What do you think is one of the most overrated jazz albums ever?

Ella and Louis by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong (Verve).

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

Japon: Gagaku (Ocora).

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

With CDs, it’s too easy to jump around. So, on LP – Polyphonies Mongo from Zaire (Congo), on Ocora. Some of it is really genius.

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

It’s a tie: North by Northwest or Psycho by Bernard Herrmann, or Amarcord by Nino Rota (or basically anything he wrote for Fellini).

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

Noura Mint Seymali at Littlefield in Brooklyn last year.

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

I really like the Sines festival in Portugal – wild, open, explorative. Least favorite is hard to say – so many are so far away from our dream of music. But Shapeshifter sure gives ’em all a run for their money – stingy, unfriendly, wannabe.

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“Nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music/nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music/nothing is accomplished by playing a piece of music/our ears are now in excellent condition.” — John Cage, Silence

  1. If you could have a drink with any visual artist of the past, who would it be?

I’ve always like Paul Klee’s writing on art, so that would probably be an edifying drink; but for my own affinities, Guston or Morandi.

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

Piano, purple uni-ball Vision Elite pen, a recording device.

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

Honeywell AirGenius 5 air cleaner/odor reducer.

  1. What are your top media sources of writing/opinion/news about music?

I miss the days when I cared about what was said in Wire. Nothing is particularly good nowadays. I read Pitchfork just to annoy my students. Last but not least, wherever the students/epigones of George Lewis are writing at that moment gives me some sense of the Writing on Improvisation Zeitgeist, and I like to keep up on that for my teaching work.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

I can’t think of anything more important than curiosity and flexible thinking.

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

This should probably be someone who can negotiate the complexities of the world with grace – someone like Barack Obama. But I can’t… So, I’m going to say György Kurtág, for his ridiculous tenacity.

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what one characteristic he or she has that you most despise?

It’s too easy to say Donald Trump – but who’s even close? That characteristic of self-satisfied ignorance…

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

Punta Gorda, Belize – chill, warm, delicious.

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

The late 1930s/early 1940s, but only in New York City (and only if not eligible for the draft). For the transition between the glory days of swing to early bebop.

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville.

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

I went through the Sight and Sound polls for this one. I’ve seen so many movies! And I still go to the movie theater all the time. So, the clear answer revealed itself to be both Gertrud and Ordet by Carl Dreyer.

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

Wherever the best omakase is, that’s where I’d like to be!

(Anthony Coleman’s hands at the Steinway while playing Herbie Nichols at Greenwich House. Photo: Bradley Bambarger.)