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Alumni Profile: Ira Coleman

Staying True to His Roots


 
  Bassist Ira Coleman
  Philippe Lévy-Stab

One day between shows on Sting's "Symphonicity" tour, the megastar handed his well-worn Fender Precision Bass to Ira Coleman '85, who mans the acoustic bass chair on the tour. Sting asked Coleman to play the Fender on some tunes at the next concert. "I'd never really gigged on electric before," Coleman says. "It was difficult, because the pickup is flat and the strings follow a curve, so they don't all have the same dynamics. You have to constantly adjust your touch to make it sound even." Being a pro, Coleman pulled it off for the show and came to up to speed on the P Bass in short order.

Sting looks for flexibility in the musicians he hires, a team-player attitude, and rock-solid fundamentals. "Intonation, time, and tone," Coleman says. "I'm a perfectionist for those things. If you have them, you can groove somebody to death."

The Sting tour has been a departure from the work Coleman had done for years with jazz greats as Betty Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Herbie Hancock, and classical singers Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Producer and arranger Bob Sadin, who is a fan of Coleman's playing, recommended Coleman to Sting for the If on a Winter's Night recording sessions, on which the two were collaborating. As a result, for the past two years, Coleman has been Sting's acoustic bassist.

Musical House Guests

Both of Coleman's parents were artists. His mother, the late Torun Bülow-Hübe, was a renowned Swedish silversmith whose simple, flowing creations influenced a generation of Scandinavian designers. Ira's father, Walter Coleman, was a noted African-American painter. The Coleman home in the south of France was a gathering place for American musicians playing the nascent jazz festival circuit during the 1960s.

The young Coleman met many jazz musicians growing up. "Whenever somebody was playing in the area, they'd come and visit," Coleman recalls. "The Count Basie and Ray Charles bands stayed with us. My mother made jewelry for Billie Holiday.

"I remember one time Charles Mingus was staying with us and saw a bass he liked in a store. He pulled out a wad of bills from his shoe and paid cash. After he left the store, he ran into Eric Dolphy, and they just started playing on the street."

Early on, Coleman was fascinated by the bass. "My dad used to paint a lot of album covers," he says. "I remember when he was doing the cover for John Coltrane's Olé, I sat beside him and made a drawing of the musicians. Afterward, my father asked asked why I had drawn two basses, and I said 'Dad, don't you hear? There are two basses on the record.'"

An acquaintance of Coleman's mother had left a cello at the house. Ira traded it for a bass and began taking lessons. After his parents separated, Coleman's mother moved the family to Germany. "She wanted me to have a good job," Coleman says, "so she enrolled me in the electronics technical school. But I didn't really like it. I was living near an American military garrison in Bitburg and playing music with the soldiers." A sax player mentioned to Coleman that the conservatory in Cologne was starting a jazz program, and he enrolled.

"I wasn't a prodigy," he says. "I don't have perfect pitch or a photographic memory, I had to work hard for everything I have." As he got deeper into the music, Coleman began sensing that he needed more than the Cologne program could offer. His roommate at the conservatory had spent time in Boston and told him about Berklee. "So I called Max Roach-who had been very close with my father-and said, 'Uncle Max, I want to check out Berklee.'" The legendary jazz drummer invited Coleman to stay with him in Massachusetts until he entered Berklee.

Total Immersion

"When I got to Berklee, I became totally immersed in music. I was gigging from the moment I got there. [Saxophonist] Allan Chase asked me to play a gig with him in Faneuil Hall on my first day at the school. Berklee was very generous with me and gave me a work-study job and scholarships. The teachers were great, and Bill Pierce became a mentor to me. Right before I went out on tour with Freddie Hubbard, Bill said, 'Ira, things can get a little crazy on the road, you might see that once you get out there. Just do your job, and don't get caught up in anyone's personal stuff."

Coleman took the advice and soon had opportunities to work with A-list artists such as Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Betty Carter. "When I was playing with Betty Carter, I was in the hot seat," Coleman says. "The music centered around the bass when she performed, and she had impeccable time. Some ballads were so slow they almost stopped. I'd feel like I was dropping bombs everywhere, but on the right spot. She would just snap her fingers, and you'd be there. I used to be hard on myself, but [drummer] Winard Harper helped me with that. He took me aside and said 'Listen, Ira, I see you in pain over there. You need to learn to condition yourself to enjoy what you're doing.' He was right, and I started trying to have more fun. That has helped me immensely. Now I always have fun when I play."

Coleman, who remains primarily an upright bass player, spends more than half of each year on the road. After September 11, traveling with an upright bass became too expensive, so he worked with luthier David Gage to develop the Czech-Ease Acoustic Road bass. Its small body makes it more portable while retaining the feel, projection, and attack of an upright. Coleman used the Czech-Ease for nine years with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and on Sting's "Symphonicity" tour. "I play it amplified," he says. "With Sting, I'm next to five cellos and three basses, so being electric makes me part of the core group. The bass fits my character. I like being an accompanist and supporting people."

When Coleman got the call for the "Symphonicity" tour, the first thing he did was listen carefully to the original recordings. "Sting is a singer who plays bass, and I realized that his bass lines are almost like a counterpoint to what he's singing. Not only are they nice lines, they work specifically with his melodies. So I learned his original lines just in case that's what he wanted to hear. And in many cases, he wanted those lines instead of what the arrangers had written. For some songs, I only had chord charts, so I fashioned bass lines after his playing."

Coleman's schedule stays packed. He's currently producing a record for French saxophonist Magnus Lindgren, and another for Argentine percussionist Minino Garay. In June and July, he'll be back on tour with Sting. A compliment Betty Carter gave Coleman years ago seems prescient today. She said, "With your skills and attitude, you can go anywhere."