Tuesday, September 25, 2018

CD Review: Steve Coleman & Five Elements- Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)
(Pi Recordings) www.pirecordings.com

A few weeks ago, Kevin Whitehead reviewed this double-CD live Steve Coleman set on an installment of the NPR show Fresh Air. It served as a nice place to potentially lure some listeners who might dig Coleman's music. (Whitehead also reviewed the Daniel Carter/William Parker/Matthew Shipp CD Seraphic Light a few weeks prior to that, which was a major coup for their unique work.) I broke my cardinal rule of avoiding contact with a critique of something that I planned to review, and I listened to the whole piece.

I'm glad I did because by listening to the track excerpts played between Whitehead's comments, the music took on a unique characteristic: It sounded like bebop. Not modern day, retrogressive bop, but first generation bebop - like the kind Charlie Parker did on Dial. And not because Coleman is playing anything like "Scrapple from the Apple" or "Relaxing at Camarillo." (Maybe the fact that he plays alto has something to do with my perception, which came around 11:00 pm, driving home from work.) The similarity came in the way this quintet delivered the music. There was fire in it, and a strong dose of self-assurance, even as they were making their way through all manner of rhythmic shifts, sometimes in direct contrast with one another. Calling Coleman's music rhythmically complex is putting it mildly. But hearing those bits again (I had been listening to the CD at home already), it played up how his melodies are accessible and engaging if one takes the time to really check them out.

A fair number of more adventurous jazz musicians have been performing at the Village Vanguard recently, but Coleman and the fabled nightclub go way back. Five Elements has had annual engagements there since 2015. Even before that occurred, Coleman became well acquainted with the Vanguard as a member of the Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1978 to 1980. The band, which initially featured Thad Jones' name in the marquee with Lewis, played there every Monday night, and it continues as the Vanguard Orchestra. Coleman moved to New York at age 21 in part to join that band.

The two sets contain virtually the same compositions but set order and combinations of tracks in medleys guarantee that they never seem like a rehash. Of course, Coleman's writing being what it is, there is never any fear of overlap anyway. "Horda," which opens disc one and first appeared on his Morphogenesis album, is built on cyclical riffs where the repeat comes in odd, unexpected places. When trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson joins the saxophonist line, he sounds right at home playing a counterline. While the whole group has an amazing rapport, Sean Rickman's skill at adding choice accents amidst his tempo work is particularly jaw-dropping. Towards the end of "Horda," both horns reach a climax by hitting just one note over a complex rhythm, while the rest of the band swirls around them. In the version on disc two, guitarist Miles Okazaki takes a solo that feels as restrained as the drums and horns sound wild.

A series of new compositions were created in a process that Coleman explains as "chains of tonal dyads that are strung together to create certain embedded melodic structures." He titled them using words from the ancient Egyptian writing system usually known as hieroglyphics. Some of the melodies have a bit of a folk-like quality, while a track like "Djw" has a visceral feel more like a progressive rock tune, thanks in part to the driving rhythm section of Okazaki, Rickman and bassist Anthony Tidd.

In case anyone might think Coleman's music is too serious, both sets end with stage announcements from the bandleader, who throws a different bon mot in each one as he introduces the band (making doubly sure he doesn't miss anyone). The liner to the cover also features a candid group photo which catches Coleman mid-laugh. Hopefully some Fresh Air listeners took the initiative to find this album since it features some of the most provocative music to come out this year. And the Vol. 1 in the title indicates there's more to come!

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