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Steve Coleman and Five Elements: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)

Troy Dostert By

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Artists don't release Live at the Village Vanguard recordings unless they've truly got something to say. The list of recordings from that fabled venue, run for decades by the incomparable Max and Lorraine Gordon, is indeed long and legendary, with well over 100 titles to date, including some of the most iconic recordings in jazz history. John Coltrane's sets from 1961 might be at the very top of the pile, but those by Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins would certainly not be far below; and, in recent years, musicians from Fred Hersch to Jason Moran to Chris Potter have ably kept the club's special mystique firmly at the forefront of the jazz world. Now, thanks to the folks at Pi Recordings, we can add alto saxophonist Steve Coleman to the list. Documenting two nights of a weeklong residency in 2017, this phenomenal two-disc release more than lives up to the lofty Vanguard pedigree. It is also one of Coleman's finest recordings—and perhaps the fullest realization of his work so far with Five Elements, his long- standing quintet with multiple iterations dating back to the mid-1980s.

Coleman's Five Elements concept represents a very different approach from what we heard on his most recent releases, 2015's Synovial Joints and 2017's Morphogenesis (both on Pi Recordings). Those exceedingly ambitious records showcased Coleman at his most cerebral, with larger ensembles playing highly complex, often abstract pieces filled with oblique ambiguity. Here, the emphasis is totally and completely on the groove, Coleman's unique funk-based approach to jazz that possesses plenty of intricacy and musical sophistication but is anchored to an irresistible rhythmic drive. It has always been Coleman's most accessible mode, and here it works perfectly.

The success of the recording is due in no small part to Coleman's exceptional colleagues, all of whom he has worked with in previous versions of the group. The veterans here are the rhythm team of bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, both of whom were present on 1999's The Sonic Language of Myth (RCA Victor), and were featured on Coleman's previous live release, Resistance is Futile (Label Bleu, 2001). Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson also played on Resistance, as well as 2013's Functional Arrythmias (Pi), where guitarist Miles Okazaki was added to the mix, thereby completing the quintet in its current form. And what a quintet it is. Not only does the Tidd/Rickman tandem provide faultless rhythmic support during each and every moment of the record, Coleman, Finlayson and Okazaki are adept at malleably shifting gears, whether by articulating Coleman's knotty melodies in lock-step unison passages or in offering dynamic interjections in support of the others during their solo moments. The group's ongoing exchanges are perhaps the most enticing aspect of the record. While each player is capable of soloing brilliantly, very rarely do the others lay out during those solos. The constant feeling of motion and energy that characterizes Coleman's music means that someone is always ready to jump into the conversation; sitting on the sidelines idly is never an option.

Not only is the musicianship impeccable, however. Even more importantly, Coleman's compositional strategy is especially fascinating in opening seemingly limitless possibilities for mutual interaction among the players. A quick look at the track list reveals that most of the pieces appear twice, usually once during each set. Listeners concerned that this will entail too much repetition need not worry, though, as the pieces take on a subtly different shape during each performance. Especially in the newer pieces, like "Djw" or "Nfr," plenty of surprises await. Obvious differences emerge, such as tempo changes or decisions about which player gets to solo and where, but the music by its very nature is infinitely modifiable. The basic theme of each piece has a modular aspect that allows it to be inserted at any time, allowing for overlapping lines and spontaneous transitions to arise in myriad creative ways, as the players determine them collectively in the moment. And the pieces themselves are sometimes combined in unique ways as well, with the record's most high-powered track, the unbelievably speedy "Figit Time," played during one set as a stand-alone and during another conjoined with "rmT," one of Coleman's more recent pieces. For this kind of adventurous chance-taking to succeed, it is imperative that the musicians feel comfortable enough with each other to be able to allow the others to influence their decisions at a moment's notice, and these musicians clearly can do that expertly.

Another crucial aspect of the recording is its ability to incorporate the long history of Coleman's repertoire. Aside from Bunky Green's "Little Girl I'll Miss You," given two lovely renditions here, the compositions are all Coleman's, and they range from older numbers like "Change the Guard," "9 to 5," and "Figit Time" to "Horda," one of the catchiest pieces on Morphogenesis. Regardless of origin, however, each piece feels of a unified whole with the rest of the music.

Coleman's most ambitious projects have sometimes intimidated listeners due to the heady conceptual terrain they cover—let's not forget that the "M-Base" idea on which Coleman's music is built stands for "Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization." But when all is said and done, at the simplest level Coleman has, and always will, make music that embodies a groove, that unmistakable rhythmic essence that is at the heart of the jazz tradition, and which always provides a place for a listener to latch on and enjoy the ride. On this most worthy addition to the Village Vanguard catalog, this band does that exceptionally well for over two and a half hours, and it's quite a journey.

Track Listing: (CD1): Horda; Djw; Little Girl I’ll Miss You/Embedded #1; idHw; twf; Figit Time; Nfr; Little Girl I’ll Miss You; Change the Guard; (CD2): rmT/Figit Time; Nfr; idHw; twf; Horda; Embedded #1; Djw; rmT/9 to 5.

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

Title: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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