The Cat's Meow

Sam Coffman, leader of Cat Unit, wants to give jazz new life.

"Have you noticed how a majority of the musicians around here are about a generation behind in the way that they play?" asks Sam Coffman, a composer/pianist who leads the Denver jazz act Cat Unit. "And hey, it's not just around here; I think it's a common problem everywhere. But here, they play all this bop and swing stuff, and about as adventurous as some get is maybe a little hard bop--and that style is even older than some of us. I mean, there is very little recognition of doing anything different. Musicians need to pay closer attention to what is evolving, not what has already evolved."

As this broadside implies, Coffman is a driven man with opinions as forceful as his playing style. However, his naturally diplomatic tone and the sincere tenor of his comments generally prevent his evaluations from giving offense. He's clearly focused on spurring musical creativity--and unlike some self-appointed critics, he's capable of putting his music where his mouth is.

The other members of Cat Unit--bassist Artie Moore, drummer Matt Houston, trumpeter Hugh Ragin and saxophonist Joe Lukasik Jr.--provide him with able assistance. They're among the most impressive talents in the area, and together they play originals that emphasize idiosyncratic formats, odd or seldom-used meters, and rhythmic structures not closely associated with jazz. Coffman calls the result "M-Base music"--a reference to the M-Base collective formed by saxophonist Steve Coleman. "We're just a group of musicians working on the concept of trying to evolve rhythmically," he elaborates. "I know that what we're doing is nothing new. People are--and have been--doing it in other places. But my idea is that M-Base could be to jazz rhythms what bop was to jazz harmonically. It's an expansion rhythmically that is sorely needed."

In some quarters, Coffman's use of the M-Base term might seem questionable. After all, M-Base, like the Black Rock Coalition and its Sixties predecessor, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, began as a somewhat elitist co-op peopled by extremely talented and visionary African-Americans. To say the least, Caucasian sympathizers like Coffman were not welcomed with open arms. Today, though, M-Base has grown beyond racial boundaries. Last year's Memories of Orion, Coffman's debut recording, is proof of that. The album also serves as a testimonial to Coffman's intense belief that for a musician, composition is not simply an art--it's a duty.

"You can't rightfully call yourself a musician if you aren't a composer," he insists. "You're only a fifty-percent musician if you just play other people's music. If you don't compose, you're not using your full capacity as a musician. And if music is truly a nonverbal form of communication, how can you communicate effectively if you aren't using your own words, creating your own stories?"

Coffman, 32, came to this conclusion years after deciding that a career in music was not for him. "I grew up with music--I started playing when I was five," he recalls. "My family moved to Colorado when I was eleven, and I was really big into the national competition circuit for young classical players. My parents really pushed me hard for that--it wasn't a choice. I got really fed up with music."

Frustrated, Coffman joined the Army, which sent him to Germany to work as an interpreter, interrogator and translator. After completing his tour, Coffman returned to Colorado and earned a degree in linguistics at the University of Colorado at Boulder--but rather than immediately plunging into that field, he re-enlisted in the Army, this time as a Special Forces field medic. (Coffman explains that the position was "about the equivalent of a third-world doctor.") Upon his return to civilian status, he became a sort of new-age Euell Gibbons, teaching plant identification and bioregional medicine at the Boulder School of Natural Medicine. This post was followed by a stint in Manitou Springs, where he informed city folks about holistic wilderness living skills. Then, two years ago, jazz drew Coffman to Denver again. According to him, "Now that I'm back to music, for the first time in my life, I honestly know this is what I'm supposed to be doing, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that."

Nevertheless, Coffman is not one of those musicians who insist that recognition is not nearly as important as the sheer joy of playing. In fact, he claims he won't settle for anything less than jazz notoriety.

"Are you kidding? I've never done anything that I didn't have to be moving full steam ahead with," he points out. "To tell you the truth, maybe this is a fault, but I've never been unsuccessful with anything in my life. I mean, I'll succeed or die trying. That's the way it is for me. All or nothing. Within a year from now--one year--I expect to be an up-and-coming musician--or else maybe music isn't really my calling.

"I have made my decision to do music based upon the way I feel, the way the spirit moves me," he continues. "I guess it's my own personal religion, as such--that I'm not out here by my own choice but for a purpose. My purpose is to reach out and speak to people. And the reason that whoever chose me did so is because they know I'm not going to be satisfied with anything less than achieving all I'm going for. And if I'm not successful, it means that I was supposed to be doing something else."

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