Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Functional Arrhythmias
Pi 147

Having refined his novel M-Base formulation for nearly three decades, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, like Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington before him, has come to the point that he can reintroduce older conceptions and integrate them with contemporary musical theories. Thus while Coleman’s 14 new compositions here posit his latest ideas about musically utilizing basic human nervous system rhythms, the methodology includes back-up roles for a cross section of his associates.

Returning to the Five Elements fold are electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, whose affiliation with Coleman goes back more than 15 years. The British-born bassist plays with Me’shell N’Degeocello; while the drummer has backed Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. A Coleman associate of this century, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, provides the brass counterpoint to Coleman’s saxophone, while for the first time guitarist Miles Okazaki becomes the fifth Element on five of the tracks.

It’s Okazaki’s cross-pulsing licks or near-folksy strums which makes the most impact on Coleman’s sound here. With a spluttering ostinato courtesy of the rhythm section evolving in parallel fashion to the tart bites and accents from the horn players, the basic Five Elements m.o. suggests a program that relates to both Ornette Coleman and James Brown. Rickman’s sophisticated clanks and stomps joined by cymbal vibrations, plus Tidd’s peal-point bass line make a virtue of the funk beat developed by Brown’s backing band, the JBs, in the early 1980s. At the same time precisely because of Finlayson’s flutter tonguing and brassy slurs, the Ornette echoes relate not only to his electric Prime Time band, but also to the revolutionary original quartet balanced by Don Cherry’s trumpet. There’s even an occasional O. Coleman-like lilt in S. Coleman’s alto playing.

Unlike Ornette Coleman’s primitivist and sometimes unsophisticated compositions which appeared to arrive fully formed, Coleman’s strategy is to first create something on his own and then allow band members to add layers of melodic and rhythmic counterpoint. That works sometimes, but when there are more than a dozen tunes extant, a certain sameness sets in.

Best are those pieces which allow the trumpeter’s puckish brassiness to intersect with the saxophonist’s biting alto tone as on “Limbic Cry”. This track also benefits from having enough space left for Coleman’s trilling story-telling variations plus rhythm section power that moves the piece chromatically. Subtle cymbals smacks mixed with rubato grace notes from the trumpeter make “Chemical Intuition” almost romantic despite Coleman’s focused slurs. These sorts of tonic lines also allow other tunes such as “Medulla-Vagus” and “Cerebellum Lean” to advance effectively. But especially on the later, it’s Tidd`s repetitive wood block pops and drum drags that create the foot-tapping rhythms rather than Coleman`s repeated obbligatos.

Which ultimately is why Okazaki-affiliated tunes like “Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)” and “Adrenal, Got Ghost” stand out. With folksy guitar licks adding heft to the vamping horns and rim shots on the first and speedier string cranks rocking the second, a respite from sameness is confirmed.

Originality and constant experimentation are what Coleman appears to envision for his Five Elements sessions. But while ideas may be multifaceted, numerous short tracks with similar rhythms mitigate complete success. Maybe introducing a few more elements in terms of instrumental colors and letting the tunes double or triple in length may produce a more positive showcase than this one next time out

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Sinews 2. Medulla-Vagus* 3. Chemical Intuition 4. Cerebrum Crossover 5. Limbic Cry 6. Cardiovascular* 7. Respiratory Flow* 8. Irregular Heartbeats* 9. Cerebellum Lean 10. Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)* 11. Adrenal, Got Ghost* 12. Assim-Elim 13. Hormone Trig 14. Snap-sis

Personnel: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet); Steve Coleman (alto saxophone); Miles Okazaki (guitar)*; Anthony Tidd (electric bass) and Sean Rickman (drums)