There was a time, in the 1980s, when it seemed as though the musicians around saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman (who was espousing a musical approach he called “M-Base”) were becoming a vital center of creativity — and one that represented a contrast to the “young lion” neo-traditional musicians who otherwise dominated that era. Ten years later, that surge didn’t seem to have taken hold. But today it is clear that M-Base and Coleman were simmering rather than boiling, and there is now a growing group of musicians from that scene who are redefining jazz in the new century.
Guitarist Miles Okazaki is a critical musician in that history, and his new recording, Trickster is a mature work for the ages.
It’s important to know that Okazaki is much more than his association with Coleman. He is a mature musician with a wide-ranging background that includes more mainstream gigs (for example, a first gig with Stanley Turrentine and four years on the road and three records with vocalist Jane Monheit); degrees from Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Julliard; training with composer Anthony Davis; three prior recordings as a leader, and extensive experience beyond jazz. So, in hearing Trickster, you are hearing an extension of his experience with Coleman (and Coleman’s extended family, including folks like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson), but also a career of thinking about and making this music.
The band includes 2017’s frontrunner for jazz musician of the year, pianist Craig Taborn, and a rhythm section we might also associate with Coleman: Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. Again, however, the association with Coleman shouldn’t hide the fact that Tidd is a wide-ranging producer and musician with credits that include work with the Roots, MeShell Ndegeocello, and Wayne Krantz; Rickman (the son of legendary guitarist Phil Unchurch) has played with DC’s Blacksheep reggae band, soul queen Angela Bofill, Ndegeochello, and Maxwell. The quartet, then, could move in any direction and every direction at once.
And it does.
The collection of sounds here has a focus and a sense of expansion at once. “The Calendar”, for example, is spun from a series of patterns Okazaki has drawn from the math of an ancient Babylonian calendar. Drums and bass lock into a wave of interlocking polyrhythms, and then harmonic variations work through a series of slow transformations. Okazaki improvises throughout, but the performance has an intense composure so that tension and excitement rise very, very slowly. It is beautiful but also clock-like: turning, spinning, moving toward high noon with just an occasional alignment of all the musicians into a cymbal crash or sudden rest.
Okazaki plays electric guitar but often with the most minimal amplification. “Eating Earth” starts with a simple melody stated in four-note phrases, the strings of the guitar sounding very purely against simple counterpoint by Taborn’s left hand and Tidd’s electric bass. Once the groove kicks in — which might bring to mind the earthy bass line from Miles Davis’s “Tutu” but with a rhythmic complexity — Taborn takes over with a slowly developing improvisation that begins from the written melody and turns into a fantasy of movement away from and back to the melody.
I’m just as much in love with the more soulful parts of Trickster. The opening track, “Kudzu”, starts with a Charlie Parker-esque melody played in tight octaves by guitar and Taborn’s right hand. Okazaki solos with a focus on blues elements, swinging his attack so that it catches in the groove of the rhythm section as well. Taborn improvises a fleet statement that is mostly a single-note line for his right hand, but as the solo ripens, the whole band (and his left hand too) are working like a drummer generating heat behind him.
The compositions and arrangement are not afraid to fool around with our expectations. “Mischief” starts with a plucked chordal pattern on guitar that sounds for all the world like something from a bossa nova at first. It turns into grooving example of 9/8 time, and it inspires gloriously melodic improvisations. “Black Bolt” almost sounds like a funk tune at first, and it develops a set of cross rhythms that remain grooving despite the development of a thrilling complexity. Don’t count the beats while you listen, just enjoy the sense of percolating momentum that gives the short (2:42) tune its wow factor.
The tune that most makes me want to dance is the bouncing “Caduceus”, which sets a guitar melody and piano melody in rotation around each other. The time signature is ambiguous to my ear, but it doesn’t matter as the groove is so fine — an infectious set of popping eighth and sixteenth notes that skip and hop and… dance. Taborn and Okazaki trade lines like Bird and Diz.
There is a thematic connection between tunes, explained in Okazaki’s fun liner notes. Each composition relates to a different trickster figure from various cultures across time. The connection to the music is sometimes mathematical, sometimes cultural, but always based on the sensibility of wit, deception, or sly disruption. The compositions and their transformations by improvisation keep you slightly off-balance, and the players seem to be pressing on the forms while still working within their elasticity. First among those players is Craig Taborn, who yet again seems like the best musician to bring into your band: relentlessly in sync with the material and equally relentlessly himself at all times.
For me, the dazzling quality of Trickster is how it marries the M-Base sensibility of rhythm and melodic development to other musical experiences. That Coleman “sound” will be your first impression, but streaks of funk, slices of bop, doses of hip-hop, and echoes of jazz balladry are here too. This is what you call “putting it all together” — which means that Trickster is that rare, mature work of an artist who has come fully into his own.