Steve Coleman and Five Elements at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser By

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Steve Coleman and Five Elements
San Francisco, CA
December 14, 2014

"The main thing that I consciously try to follow is things I find in nature, in universe. Basically I see the universe as sort of giant palette of forms within forms."—Steve Coleman

He is a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. An alto saxophonist and bandleader who has taught at UC Berkeley. A disciple of Chicago saxophonists Von Freeman, Sonny Stitt and Bunky Green. A founder of M-Base, a movement seeking to combine non-western and contemporary musical concepts. An artist who has influenced pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. A musician who has a large number of CDs under his own name, and who has recorded with artists as diverse as Geri Allen, David Murray, Chico Freeman, Dave Holland, Cassandra Wilson, Sam Rivers and Abbey Lincoln. Who is this individual? Steve Coleman, a Chicago-born and raised musician. Coleman appeared at SFJAZZ in the company of a youthful crew of musical collaborators: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, all of whom may be heard on Coleman's Functional Arrhythmias (Pi, 2013).

As holds true for nearly every contemporary saxophonist, John Coltrane has influenced Coleman's musical development. Coleman appeared as part of SFJAZZ's commemoration of Coltrane's groundbreaking album A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965), recorded exactly 50 years before. SFJAZZ Director Randall Kline and Coltrane's son Ravi—who had performed twice that week and who has recorded with Coleman—introduced Coleman and Five Elements, while providing a bit of background on A Love Supreme which, he informed the audience, has sold half a million copies.

Taking their place onstage, the five musicians launched into Bunky Green's "Little Girl I'll Miss You." Clad in jeans, a caftan and a black baseball cap set with reversed brim, Coleman laid down an alto line and the four members joined in. Finlayson, sporting an Afro and wearing plastic-rimmed glasses, soloed. The overall mix brought to mind Miles Davis' 1970s electric period, Ornette Coleman's harmolodics and the work of Henry Threadgill. Tidd, born in Britain to Trinidadian emigrant parents, lay down a funky bass beat alongside Rickman. Rickman is the son of R&B stalwart Phil Upchurch and has been the vocalist and drummer for the quiescent fusion-jam quartet Garaj Mahal. While indubitably dynamic, Rickman's rock-influenced playing was hardly subtle.

On his website, Coleman, reflects that M-Base, his musical philosophy, "is a way of thinking about creating music" but is not the music itself. One of the main ideas in M-Base is growth through (conceptual) creativity. Coleman goes on to relate that "when people hear my music they are listening to a musical expression of how I view the world" and that his performance "is in many ways a non-western conception of how to use music to express experience. For example, for me the western concepts of time signatures (including so-called 'common' and 'odd time signatures') largely do not exist and have no place in creating music." Coleman further maintains that "the concepts of M-Base are based primarily on music from Afrika and creative music of the Afrikan Diaspora," and his music clearly reflected that influence, especially during some interludes which featured chanting and cowbell percussion by Coleman and Finlayson.

John Coltrane's ballad "Compassion" followed, and Coleman's group also played a version of the seminal saxophonist's classic "Giant Steps." Addressing the audience, Coleman related that "We're making a lot of oblique references to my man John all through the music."

Playing second fiddle to Coleman yet most definitely a first-rate musician, Finlayson has been playing with Coleman since the saxophonist's days teaching at Berkeley, where their association began. In this highly charged electric band, the pair's rapport was most evident during the quieter interludes. Finlayson, in turn, has worked closely with guitarist Okazaki, who appears on Finlayson's leader debut, Moment and the Message (Pi, 2013).

After 90 minutes of hard-driving playing, Finlayson introduced the band members. After "Change the Guard," the band exited to a standing ovation and then returned to encore with a rollicking version of "Pad Thai." A short coda brought the evening to its climax.

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