Friday, April 19, 2013

CD Review: Steve Coleman and Five Elements - Functional Arrhythmias

Steve Coleman & Five Elements
Functional Arrhythmias

None of Steve Coleman's recent albums really qualify as casual listening. Listening to the alto saxophonist's sometimes rigid blend of a deceptively static rhythm section and tightly wound alto and trumpet melodies can really get under your skin. At other times, it sounds like off-kilter funk that can groove.

Functional Arrhythmias takes a departure from Coleman's The Mancy of Sound, which Pi released in 2011. Where that album featured two drummers and a percussionist setting up a tricky interplay, this time  Five Elements veteran Sean Rickman is the only drummer. Bassist Anthony Tidd, who like Rickman played in the band over 15 years ago, also returns to the fold, thus ensuring the group has a tight rhythm section to maneuver Coleman's writing. The frontline is pared down as well to just Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, after a few albums that added Tim Albright's trombone and Jen Shyu's voice, which was used as an instrument, as opposed to working as a vocalist. Five of the fourteen tracks add guitarist Miles Okazaki, who bridges the gap between Tidd's basslines and the horns.

On top of the instrumentation, there's the underlying concept of the album, which is inspired by the way the body's circulatory, nervous and respiratory operate. Percussionist Milford Graves studied the connection between these function and music, according to Coleman's liner notes, and it inspired the saxophonist to explore it in music. A concept like this can be something that sounds fascinating on paper but dry and mathematical in execution. Coleman has avoided that pitfall by making music that is challenging at times, grates at times, but keeps you listening. Only one track comes close to hitting the seven-minute mark, while most of them average about four minutes. In doing this, Coleman seems to realize that there are a lot of different angles to explore when approaching the concept, and he knows how to keep them compelling. "Cardiovascular" present a good example of the rhythm section's challenge: most of the time they repeat a waltz ostinato, rigidly locked into the riff, but every so often another beat (or is it two?) get thrown in, representing the arrhythmia and making your ear do a double-take. In "Irregular Heartbeats" Okazaki doubles up the bass melody which also keeps shifting the number of beats. "Adrenal, Got Ghost" changes things around, almost sounding like fusion funk, complete with cowbell, while Rickman plays "Cerebrum Crossover" on rims and woodblocks.

The rapport between Coleman and Finlayson sounds so tight that they almost sound like twin heads of one horn on "Sinews." Everything is executed with the most amazing, precise clarity. As the album opener, this piece is also the loosest, with a stop-start funk groove and a solo by Coleman that gets kicks off with some slippery blues feeling. While the two horns are cohesive, many of the tracks also require them to fire off their melodies with quick, staccato delivery, which is when they get a little unsettling. Especially when they're spitting out melodies in asymmetrical groups of notes, it can sound more like exercises, or prog-rock. But for every moment like that, they come back with "Limbic Cry" where they recall Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry having some deep conversation. Rather than brush it aside, it makes you want to listen in and figure out what Coleman and Finlayson are discussing.


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