Steve Coleman‘s saxophone has a cool yet relentless quality. His playing doesn’t necessarily burn with fiery passion as much as it rushes forward like water, often in swirling patterns that could be called aquatic. His music, developed now in distinctive systems over decades of playing with sympathetic improvisers, has been massively influential in the New Jazz of New York. And, although he jokes during this live recording at New York’s Village Vanguard that “it’s getting harder to make up new stuff”, the tides of his creativity continue to swell, change, surge.
Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II (MDW NTR) follows a spectacular 2017 set from the same club that featured this band but with the guitarist Miles Okazaki in place of vocalist/rapper Kokayi. The first release seemed to sum up Coleman’s music and approach with his “Five Elements” band, reprising old music and blending it with the new, interpreted by a band with plenty of bandstand time in the bank.
The 2018 set presented here is a bit sparer, as Kokayi works in some ways as a guest voice, zipping into each performance as a brilliant free-styler and joining the ensemble as an improviser or to double an instrumental line. With no chording instrument in the center, our ears get to hear the specifics of the rhythm section more clearly, and we come to hear that Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson play horn lines woven into the rhythmic play integrally.
Bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman have extra room to shine on this recording. Tidd plays electric bass in a manner that is arguably unique. Though he can be plenty grooving, he never sounds like a funk bassist in the mode of, for example, Marcus Miller. He plays cycling melodies with a guitar-like fluency that is reminiscent of Steve Swallow, but the sonority of his instrument is less rounded—he buzzes just a bit with the sound of real strings in contact with the act of plucking. His connection to Rickman is where so much of Five Element brings joy. Rickman has roots as a funk drummer, but there is a loose-limbed quality to his work, a clatter of Elvin Jones that mixes in with rock steady timekeeping. Together, the pair is the key to this set.
We hear Tidd and Rickman integrated with the horns on every performance. It is quite common for Coleman to begin a track such as “Unit Fractions” by stating a line—in this case, he begins loosely, exploring some of its melodic and harmonic options at leisure—and working it into a repeated figure that he hands directly to Tidd. “Unit Fractions” brings Kokayi in over bass/alto sax, with Rickman starting with short explosions and accents. Tidd carries the melody as Coleman and Finlayson begin playing syncopated bursts, which gives Rickman permission to groove more regularly. Before you know it, the whole system of five voices sounds like a complex hip-hop/jazz ensemble considerably bigger than a quintet. The action flows like water—from Coleman’s horn to bass to drums, all of it lifting the boats of melody/lyrics/improvisation.
The mastery of Kokayi on this recording is close to indescribable. Much has been made of the connection between jazz and hip-hop, but a terse explanation of that link in more than metaphoric terms isn’t easy to come by. Kokayi’s rapping on Vanguard Volume II is, at least, an explanation by example. He is performing “freestyle” vocal improvisation that’s remarkable in its dexterity and intelligence. Just as a bebop instrumental improviser has to have supreme command of her instrument as well as a fully integrated knowledge of advanced harmony, a great rapper has to have a brilliantly developed facility with words and rhythms such that he can construct high-speed strings of language that includes rhythmic variety, thematic development, and elements of rhyme and tonal/melodic interest.
For example, on “9 to 5”, Kokayi “solos” between Coleman and Finlayson, just diving in and wailing, but with words. And while he may be inventing “freely”, he is also using the themes of each tune to frame his burst of verbal creativity—just as a jazz musician uses to tune’s melody and harmonic structure to guide an instrumental solo. It is rapping at a Charlie Parker degree of difficulty.
And, lest it seems like Kokayi is always a rapper rather than a singer, there are many parts of this concert when his role as a singer for the band is important—but usually in a way that is integral with his “rapping”. On “Mdw Ntr”, for example, he falls in with the horns, singing unison parts that may or may not be “written” ahead of time, and he entwines with the group in specific rhythmic shouts at other points. On “Rumble Young Man, Rumble”, he’s a talk-singing soul singer from the beginning, not rapping but singing a theme that is one with the horns’ written material. The sonority of his vocalizing even at the top is that of an MC, but it comes across as the focus rather than a guest spot.
Just as Kokayi is integrated with the horns, Finlayson and Coleman function as if they were controlled by one brain, like two hands that work together to mold a single piece of clay. When they play unison or harmonized ensemble passages, they make the band sound not robotic but organic. They play with perfect awareness of each other but not without the rub and joy of subtle variation. Because this band has no piano or guitar, one horn often plays behind the other’s improvisation as part of the rhythm section, making the whole band sound more collective, more like a great New Orleans ensemble in which contrary melodic lines were standard. While it is probably expected to compare Coleman and Finlayson to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, the better analogy might be to Armstrong and Barney Bigard.
In the liner notes, Coleman tells us that the themes here were inspired by “the shapes and symbolism of the Mdw Ntr, a transliteration of the Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) writing system, often called hieroglyphics. But you don’t have to know any of this to get into the music.” So it’s worth noting that Coleman’s music—arguably one of the ur-texts for the most complex New Jazz that can seem far afield from jazz at its more populist—really connects on Live at the Village Vanguard. Many tracks are long, and the improvising can be knotty and bold, but there is a directness to all the music. Tidd and Rickman play a busy, insistent groove that’s neither walking-bassline swing nor pocket-oriented funk. Somehow, someway, it is both. The written music and improvising are mostly tonal and sleek. It flies with joyful forward momentum, which is to say that it swings in any modern sense of the word. With Kokayi’s contribution, it’s explicitly connected to the artful wing of hip-hop, the most important popular music of the last three decades.
Yes, you can connect to the music of Steve Coleman, to “jazz”, to “creative music”. The sound is liquid and flowing, tidal and a tidal wave. It is, actually, a refraction of culture and tradition that includes James Brown and Public Enemy, Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Kanye West. It’s art infused with all that information, and it challenges us simultaneously. Live at the Village Vanguard Volume II by Steve Coleman and Five Elements band isn’t easy listening music, but that’s precisely why it might lift you higher.