Steve Coleman: Live at Village Vanguard Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)

Karl Ackermann By

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Decades after he had migrated from Chicago to New York to briefly play in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman took to the Village Vanguard stage that Jones and Lewis had occupied for more than twenty years. Since 2015, Coleman and his Five Elements group have made the club an annual event in their global schedule. Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. I (The Embedded Sets) documents two nights' performances recorded in May 2017.

The Five Elements have been a remarkably stable group for the past fifteen years with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman having a long history with the leader. Guitarist Miles Okazaki has released five albums as leader or co-leader working with drummer Dan Weiss on four of those albums. Okazaki's Pi Recordings debut, Trickster (2017), featured Tidd on bass and Craig Taborn as well.

Coleman's two previous Pi Recordings releases, Synovial Joints (2015) with Council of Balance, and Morphogenesis (2017) with his Natal Eclipse group, were—in Coleman's M-Base format—extravagantly prepared and exhaustively composed, relying on his cognitive process, and absence of predictable time signatures. Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. I represents a paradigm shift as Coleman focuses on spontaneous composition and free improvisation. Unusual and complex time signatures are still present throughout this two-disc set, though the overall context is shaped in the moment.

"Horda" opens the first set but is revisited mid-way through the second set as well, in the latter case with a bit more of a world music touch. Along with "Djw," the first fifteen minutes of the combined two and one-half hour program grows steadily in intensity. The medley of Bunky Green's "Little Girl I Love You" and "Embedded #1" provide a more expressive respite that continues with the lyrical "idHw." Once the forceful improvisations resume, the quintet doesn't come up for air again until well into the second set where a similar version of "idHw" reappears. Coleman and Finlayson tend to be center stage for much of the collection though Okazaki gets his share of lead time on the quieter pieces.

As with the five numbers mentioned above, Coleman has opted for a significant amount of repetition here with all but two tunes having a second version. While the alternates vary to some extent, this very long collection would have been quite a bit above average were we given access to the best of each piece. That said, Coleman's music is so different from most everything we hear that the multiple listens deliver somewhat deeper insights to the composer's development of works. Moreover, these sparer approaches provide a well-rounded view of an artist with an ear for the street, current and relevant, and without sacrificing cultural references or the bebop fundamentals that Coleman grew up with.

Track Listing

CD 1: Horda; Djw; Little Girl I'll Miss You-Embedded #1; idHw; twf; Figit Time; Nfr, Little Girl I'll Miss You; Change the Guard. CD 2: rmT-Figit Time; Nfr; idHw; Horda; Embedded #1; Djw; rmT-9 to 5.


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

Album information

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


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