Composer and saxophonist Steve Coleman started his experience in New York City with a two-year stint in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The band’s famed residency playing Monday nights at the Village Vanguard included Coleman’s tenure between 1978 and 1980. By 1985, Coleman had formed a loose collective (M-Base—a kind of acronym, but never mind) that was exploring a new intersection of funk/soul and jazz. Early heroes like Maceo Parker cohabited with the likes of Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor in this music. With the new sound of hip-hop creeping in around edges too, nothing else sounded quite like it.
Since then Coleman has played with some other masters (most interestingly, bassist Dave Holland), but mostly he has explored his personal vision, taking it through a series of twists and turns but usually hewing back to a hypnotic stew in which complex polyrhythms with a connection to funk are worked though spinning, mutating melodic patterns. Holland, who played with Miles Davis during his most exploratory funk beginnings, also has a way with hooky, repeated bass patterns. But Coleman’s music veered more toward an improvisational encounter with world music forms and classical new music ideas. It flirted with tedium at times, spinning and churning, but—particularly when his band Five Elements was keeping the funk center alive—could also be almost like dance music. Fascinating but grounded in the groove.
Coleman was invited to headline the Vanguard for the first time in 2015, his homecoming after a long musical odyssey, and in 2017 he brought the current—and diamond brilliant—version of Five Elements in to present what sounds like the best music of his career. The band is rooted in groove, with Sean Rickman, a DC-area drummer with as much Go-go in his blood as anything else, and London-born bassist Anthony Tidd, who has worked with the Roots and MeShell Ndegeocello as well as in classical music. Beside Coleman’s alto sax on trumpet is Jonathan Finlayson, a long-time veteran of Coleman’s music, with guitarist Miles Okazaki creeping in the middle between the rhythm section and the front line. Collectively, it’s hard to imagine a band that understands Coleman’s musical vision more deeply,
The program recorded here across two sets is immaculate in sound and conception—as good a summary of the core idea of Coleman’s music as we will ever have.
In recent years, Coleman has used larger and more idiosyncratic ensembles to create several recordings that are near masterpieces. Morphogenesis from 2017 featured a large ensemble without drums, and yet it achieved the jabbing and swinging rhythms of funk and jazz in brilliant ways. 2015’s Synovial Joints was equally strong and incorporated strings, low brass, Jen Shyu’s voice, and more. On Live at the Village Vanguard, Coleman reprises some of this music, covers a couple of melodies by others, and plays lots of new music, and it all feels large but core—the backbone of Coleman’s art. The live recording feels so definitive, it seems analogous to the Plugged Nickel Recordings of Miles Davis’s second quintet—the sound of a core band defining itself in front of an audience for posterity.
The two sets recorded here are distinctive but include many of the same compositions, reshuffled. And the similar system used in organizing many of the arrangements can give them similar characters, even as the compositions are distinct. Coleman is building many of the melodic lines from punched pairs of notes that repeat, syncopate, then lock into other two-note figures to turn into longer melodies that then can overlap with each other and pile up into exciting frantic arcs of rhythmic music.
In the first set, we get an urgent version of Coleman’s “Horda” that begins with sharp toggled licks from Coleman’s alto, joined quickly by Tidd and Rickman, each mimicking the initial pattern in some way. Okazaki is there as a subtle shadow of the initial melody, then he and Tidd carry it as the two horns play a loose unison on a two-note shake, which eventually blossoms into a more complete melodic phase that quickly gives way to improvisation. That shake will return as an accompaniment to a thrilling Rickman drum solo. All sorts of intimate conversation takes place amidst the solos: Okazaki dirtying up the spinning funk of the rhythm section, Coleman bringing in alto figures beneath Finlayson’s trumpet solo, Rickman varying the sound of his kit with bells and other sonorities to give the groove percussive variation. During the second set, “Horda” leans on longer repetitions of the more complex phrase, with less repetition of that two-note shake; The interactions between the two horns are less contrapuntal and more integrated with a long section in which each is reached up in a high long tone and challenging the other.
The danger—as heard with some less able versions of Coleman’s bands—is for the “wheel within a wheel” nature of this approach to create a brilliantly woven but all-too-same texture, with the highlights of the individual playing lost to the overall sound. This band won’t allow that. Tidd and Rickman are seamless but constantly daring each other, Finlayson and Coleman play with such assured tone and note choice that every move sounds as crisp and clarion as a horn line on a classic Blue Note Session. And Okazaki glues everything together. The result is a session that has the aggressive bite and dynamic variation of snapping hard bop along with the rhythmic adventure of pan-cultural art-funk.
The opening gambit of the second set is a highlight. “rmT” begins with an odd-meter groove under which Tidd plays just two notes in a jigsaw pattern. Solos for trumpet and saxophone alternate with a written melody. Coleman’s solo has a boppish quality, leaving moments of silence in unexpected places. The end of this section uses a revolving pattern that only alters every fourth go-round . . . and then the performance explodes into a faster tempo for “Figit Time”, which chatters with greater freedom, a roiling funk that almost reminds you of old New Orleans jazz, with constant dialogue among the improvisors, all going full bore at once. You want to dance.
“idHw” appears in both sets as well, a ballad. Coleman starts it in a duet with a playful Rickman using brushes, and then the melodic statement‚—slow half notes with guitar accompaniment, which opens up into a quiet period of improvisation over a free tempo. The sound is impressionistic and gentle, with Finlayson adding harmony on the third iteration of the melody and Okazaki playfully tremulously under a duet improvisation for the horns. The first set performance is slightly more direct and less feathered, with Finlayson’s playing developing some lovely and delicate high note work.
“twf”, by contrast, has a thumping quality, particularly in the first set, with Tidd’s bass insistent and on the beat and Okazaki playing a tearing solo that stings and strikes through the band’s sound. In the second set, Coleman introduces the tune with a solo saxophone section and then his solo crosses more emotional territory, with the band adjusting to swing just slightly more.
These kinds of variations, however, are subtle and based largely on the sense of the moment. The musical structures, in their own way, serve the same purpose as old standards used to—creating suggestive platforms from which the individual voices take flight. These flights, however, are different because they are based the new language for improvisation that Coleman is promoting. This isn’t “free jazz” in any sense, even though it doesn’t follow the usual blues and Tin Pan Alley harmonic patterns. It always sounds logical and interconnected, moving through patterns whose logic is shared by the band. The fun here—as on the second set’s version of “Embedded #1″—is in hearing how players as piquant as Okazaki and Finlayson choose to find their way through the mazes and forms that Coleman’s music sets up. The melody is played with the kind of sympathetic twinning that we tend to associate with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Coleman’s alto and Finlayson’s trumpet phrase magically together, moving from unison to strategic dissonances and little, tailing off squeals that make the band a delight. Then each voice works through the patterns like a basketball player weaving through a defense. And even though Tidd and Rickman are not typically “soloing”, they also are constantly improvising and in the flow of conversation.
It’s probably just coincidence, but the most compelling performance here may be the last of the second set, “rmT / 9 to 5”. The first half, a compelling clatter over a complex rhythm that still feels danceable, floats and flies with incredible ease—the most accessible piece of Coleman music in recent memory. The first piece ends on a rotating three-note figure repeated by bass, trumpet, and alto that turns out to have been at the center of the performance all along, precisely the kind of motivic composition that Coleman seems to be defining with this music. This bass groove continues under the new melody, and then that melody transforms the groove, first into a slippery thing that seems to be swinging in a swift 8/8 and then into a throbbing pulse that is punctuated by Rickman’s rolls and explosions of accent.
Coleman announces the band and closes out his week at the Vanguard over this sound, and you think: more. With this set, Steve Coleman and Five Elements are promising that jazz—with its intimate connection to every other American musical style and so many West African-based musics all over the world—remains our endless well of creativity. More indeed.