Steve Coleman and Five Elements - Live at the Village Vanguard-Vol. 1

Label: Pi Recordings, 2018

Personnel – Steve Coleman: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Miles Okazaki: electric guitar; Anthony Tidd: electric bass; Sean Rickman: drums.


How infectious and original is the music of M-Base disciple and pioneer Steve Coleman! The alto saxophonist/composer has been a true creative force on the jazz scene for more than three decades, contributing with great recordings where he showcases striking new ways of improvising along with an impressive ability to play with texture and mood.

On the trail of last year's Morphogenesis, orchestrated with the extended Natal Eclipse ensemble, the saxophonist releases the double CD-set Live at the Village Vanguard-Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) with his most emblematic group, The Five Elements, featuring Johnathan Finlayson on trumpet, Miles Okazaki on electric guitar, Anthony Tidd on electric bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. 

The band not only brings the necessary tension but also illumination on several tunes of the first set, starting with “Horda” (from the previous album), superiorly driven by a spasmodic rhythm section that underpins powerful staccato notes expelled by the frontline. Coleman overcomes conventions and transcends in an inflamed improvisation before embarking on unison lines with Finlayson, who also gleams in his own idiomatic style.

Full-throttle riffs resonate on “Djw”, inspiring a pressurized funky thrust that never loses intensity. After Okazaki’s congruent exploration, coordinated with timbral perspicacity, Coleman forges ahead in his statements by infusing incredible patterned cadences and steep accentuations. By the end, Rickman puts his flexible percussive technique at the service of the band through colorful attacks.

Slow-moving clouds are gently portrayed on “idHw” and Bunky Green’s “Little Girl I’ll Miss You”, here gradually layered with the sequential addition of drums, guitar, and then bass, flowing with a slightly Latin feel.

Marvelous intricacies and rich details are detectable, even when the groove is primal, like on “twf” or “Figit Time”, a jazz-funk piece written by Doug Hammond. This latter tune keeps bouncing oddly before touching the spiritual with Coltranean inspiration in its final segment. 

Nfr” is a legitimate swinging explosion of avant-funk and neo-bop that convinces and captivates with enraptured sensitivity. It anticipates the arrival of the closing tune, “Change of Guard” (first recorded in 86), where Coleman even scats at a blazing tempo and then slows down the pace to a swinging 4/4 finale.

Even avowing form and structure, the sense of freedom/adventure is everywhere. Coleman excites the listeners, constantly stepping outside comfort zones through unpredictable arrangements suffused with spiraling movements and a free-funk infectiousness that dazzles.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks (first set): 
01 – Horda ► 02 – Djw ► 07 - Nfr

Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse - Morphogenesis

Label/Year: Pi Recordings, 2017

Lineup – Steve Coleman: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finalyson: trumpet; Maria Grand: tenor saxophone; Rane Moore: clarinet; Kristin Lee: violin; Jen Shyu: vocals; Matt Mitchell: piano; Greg Chudzik: bass; Neeraj Mehta: percussion.

On today’s scene, only very few musicians can be proud of following their own musical instincts and still generate a style that is very much their own. American alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman is undeniably one of those. A glance at his career reveals defying aesthetics, laudable eclecticism, staggering arrangements, and a scrupulous technique that makes his saxophone speak volumes.

He just keeps getting better with the age. Hence, if Synovial Joint, composed for a large ensemble, was one of the best albums if not the best of 2015, his brand new Morphogenesis, also released on Pi Recordings, is a serious candidate for that title again.

In his new all-star ensemble, Natal Eclipse, Coleman catches up with some regular members of The Five Elements and The Council of Balance groups, as well as two great new additions, cases of percussionist Neeraj Mehta, who plays on five tracks, and the highly sought-after pianist Matt Mitchell.

The percussion-less “Inside Game” provides an excellent overture with Greg Chudzik and Mitchell assuring the tune’s heartbeat. They are joined by the frontliners’ intervallic infiltrations, Kristin Lee’s abrasive violin strokes, and Jen Shyu’s finesse vocalizations. It’s all about this organic conjunction that expands ecstatically and makes us thirsty to discover more about the textural consciousness that reigns in the group.

Pull Counter” uses a specific phrase as a motive and places it over a malleable bass flow that occasionally swings, especially when Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson improvise. In turn, Mitchell’s gut reaction is as much lyrical as rhythmically audacious.

Mehta’s percussive spells play a strategic role not only on “NOH” and “SPAN”, two spontaneous and floatingly counterpointed improvisations, but especially on “Shoulder Roll” whose sensuous exoticism is fully cooked in the company of Chudzik’s grooves. This bonhomie also offers unisons delivered with pinpoint accuracy, as well as short but intrepid improvisations.

With “Morphing”, Coleman conjures up a sort of Baroque dance where the sobriety of classical music blends with the mischief of jazz. Embracing sleekness and dodging obstacles, this tune rushes into shifting counterpoint and smart polyphony whenever the horn collective is not acting as one. And what a force has the voice of Ms. Shyu here!

Coleman’s sophistication of speech is well patented on “Dancing and Jabbing”, a piece that is poetry for the ears. It also reflects the refined musicianship of the band members, who call up for their own space as they keep creating on top of an incandescent coalition.

The record closes with “Horda”, a pungent orchestration holding magical African pulses and angular melodic traits. The swaggering movements and hasty verbalizations also bring classical influences to the table while every player searches and fetches.

The connectedness of the nine tunes in Morphogenesis becomes fundamental to achieve a cohesive whole. It’s an indestructible relationship between structure, unity, and improvisation.

Less dense or polyrhythmic than previous works, this is a deluxe Coleman that enters directly to the top picks of the year.

       Grade  A+

       Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Inside Game ► 05 – Morphing ► 09 – Horda