Steve Coleman has been one of the most interesting and influential leaders and composers in jazz during the last 25 to 30 years. When he first emerged, he seemed to combine a disciplined approach with an interest in funk elements—yet his approach led to a freedom from traditional structures. Coleman quickly gathered an impressive array of fellow musicians who were willing to explore new structures of composing and improvising with him, the so-called M-Base Collective.
Much of this music was passionate and driving. Some was tender and lyrical. The best of it had the full range of feelings, textures, and possibilities. But, as the first flush of his sound became a bit more familiar, Coleman seemed to shift his work into an increasingly abstract mode. I can’t offer a comprehensive analysis of the progress of Coleman’s recorded work from the late ‘90s onward because, honestly, I lost much of my interest in it. Any single tune or even single album could be riveting, but the great stretch of it numbed my ears. And when I heard his “Five Elements” band play a concert in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art about five years ago, I thought it was flat out boring.
Even so, a band that spins out players like Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman has got to be up to something wonderful. Right?
Functional Arrhythmias is at least a reminder and maybe a reawakening for Steve Coleman: his hippest and most engaging music in a while. Although the ideas here have much in common with Coleman’s recent work—interlocking patterns that fit together over grooving rhythms—this music is pointed and has a sense of pulsing dynamic that builds. Perhaps my view is tainted by that soporific and bland MOMA concert, but this disc seems like something different and better.
Dig into the very first track here, “Sinews”, and you find a burbling and interested bass line (courtesy of Anthondy Tidd) that is funky but melodically complex, and then a pair of lines for alto (Coleman) and trumpet (Jonathan Finlayson) that work in unison and harmony, curling around the bass groove, letting the bass stop as they continue, driving up into climax in wholly not boring ways. As Coleman starts improvising, Finlayson jumps in again in various places with the written line, and the transition to the trumpet solo is worked out with a new set of horn harmonies. It is highly structured, but the pleasures of classic jazz are here too.
On other tracks, the quartet is filled out with guitarist Miles Okazaki, and he is utterly at home in this group’s groove. Okazki plays clean-toned and ruminative, for example, on “Medula-Vagas”, a co-equal with Coleman and Finlayson on the opening section without drums. Then he wraps into the rhythm section when Sean Rickman enters. Rickman is astute and colorful on every track, a dynamic presence but never overwhelming—melodic and polyrhythmic at once. Akazaki plays with a funky kind of patterning on tunes like “Cardiovascular” and “Adrenal, Got Ghost”, where he is almost hard to hear, adding staccato stabs that lock in with the rhythm. On the latter tune, he gets what seems like the first solo but is really more like a bouncing set of variations on the rhythm that builds into a cool, dancing collective improvisation. He almost never plays chords—in either the jazz style or the rock style—but instead comes off as a patterned groove player who is intent on blending into the band.
A word about the song titles, which connect to the “concept” of this music: they all relate in some way to the systems of the body. Coleman drew inspiration for this music from the “contrapuntal firing of nerve impulses” that remind him of modulating heartbeat-like rhythms. I never know what to say about that kind of thing. If you don’t dig the music, the concept won’t save it. If you do, I’m not sure what the concept adds to the listener’s experience. But what is on display here, from start to finish, is a set of brilliantly interlocking parts. Every song has a different rhythmic grounding, usually set by the bass or the guitar, around which everything else loops and weaves. If “Respiratory Flow” doesn’t particularly remind me of breathing, that’s okay because it’s a killer set of hip pulses for the strings, with Rickman dancing around it with a joyous, New Orleans-y kind of irregular funk, the horns jumping in with a cool contrast. Whatever the concept or inspiration, it is neat music.
After 14 compositions and performances in this vein, perhaps the sameness of the sound on these songs wears a touch thin. There aren’t necessarily memorable melodies, and the looping nature of the music does give it a meditative, wheel-within-a-wheel quality. This sameness is accentuated by the tones that all the soloists adopt throughout. Coleman plays with a bit of roughness and honk in his alto sax, but he rarely if ever lets it cry or float into passion. Finlayson is a Miles Davis kind of trumpet player in that he likes to sit in the middle of the horn’s register, playing with a cool crackle but little flair. His brilliance on this record is more in where he places his notes in time rather than their speed or daring or fire.
But that’s okay. This music has plenty of range and intelligence even in its cool reserve. There is a chamber jazz quality here, no doubt, but the band sounds like it is not bored with this set of challenges, and the result is that we—the listeners—aren’t either. I hear it as a big Welcome Back to Steve Coleman. I hear it with the enjoyment that modern jazz can bring when it mixes smarts with heart.