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‘Nine Lives,’ Chris Coles’ Magnum Opus, Gets New Life

Chris Coles

After my freelance music gig for a newspaper in Erie, Pennsylvania had vanished in 2020 and I had moved to Cleveland, I resolved to document the local jazz scene, one that was all but ignored by media outlets in northeast Ohio. Good people making interesting music is catnip to a culture reporter, and I found a subject right away.

This was Chris Coles whose “Nine Lives” project became the first post in my documentary project covering the local scene. That was November 2021. Now, 30 months later “Nine Lives” is back for a performance Friday at Tri-C. And just like a familiar melody that is transformed by a master improvisor, Coles’ magnum opus returns reimagined as a new work.

It’s called “When Still,” by the eminent Chicago drummer and educator Dana Hall, a work that honors not only the nine lives lost in Charleston, South Carolina and the ten lives lost in Buffalo in racially motivated shootings, but also the storied jazz tradition of composers building on the work of their predecessors.

Nine Lives” was conceived in in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston in 2015. Hall built on Coles’ original structure of a multi-movement, multidisciplinary piece combining dance, spoken word, animated visuals and a small jazz ensemble.

“My original conception for this project was to take this to different cities and collaborate with other organizations,” Coles said in a video call last week. “So you give the music . . . to a group and they have a composer comb through the score and find the things that they dig and then they recompose the piece and give it new life in a different way. Dana’s gone through and taken the score and re-orchestrated and recomposed the pieces,” Coles said.

It’s a process that’s not unlike the jazz practice of providing a lead sheet that sketches structure and chords that can be realized by ensembles of various sizes. For “When Still,” that ensemble is the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, which required Hall to write a full score. In addition to Kristopher Morron who will conduct, the performing forces include Coles and drummer Zaire Darden, MC Floco Torres and choreographer Dominic Moore-Dunson.

Dana Hall

Hall should be much better known. His academic gig as full professor of jazz studies and an associate dean at DePaul University keeps him close to Chicago. Even in a city with no shortage of great drummers. Hall stands out for his boundless elasticity and ability to summon ferocious power when necessary. But his greatest skill might be as a listener who can respond instantly to the sounds around him. It’s no wonder he took to Coles’ gripping concept.

And just as its composer envisioned, “Nine Lives” will live on in other settings. Coles will take the project to the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in September with trumpeter Sean Jones. 

Coles has no plans for the work beyond that performance. “You know, I try to just  leave everything open-ended [and] up to the universe.” He said. “I’m not trying to do anything, Right now this is what it’s going to be and if the stars align and we end up taking this somewhere else, that’d be great.”

When Still’ inspired by Chris Coles’ ‘Nine Lives’ project, Fri., May 17, 7 p.m., Tri-C Metropolitan Campus Auditorium, 2900 Community College Ave., Cleveland,. Tickets $10-20 , available here.

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,