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Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance: Synovial Joints

Karl Ackermann By

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Composer and saxophonist Steve Coleman grew up in Chicago's AACM neighborhood before moving on to New York's big band scene in the 1970s. Diverse influences combined with his assorted academic interests in philosophy, world religion and nature, have made him a source for some of the most unique music of the past twenty years. While not immune from critical misunderstanding, the recent winner of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award has proven himself an enduring creative force. Coleman has remained true to his musical objectives and his unique—and always evolving—approaches continue to be relevant. His perseverance has paid off with Synovial Joints, a significant achievement in his long career.

Coleman applies a two-fold approach to the creative process. One part incorporates the natural world, in the sense of how things move and flow, and he joins this with his concept called "camouflage orchestration" which his more difficult to articulate but comes alive upon hearing the music. The compositions and arrangements find an elusive equilibrium between philosophy and free forms. A number of colleagues from Coleman's Five Elements group join a very large collective that includes strings and multiple percussionists with influences that range from classical to Latin.

The opening track, "Acupuncture Openings," is a good place to begin talking about Coleman's concept. Instrumental groupings and themes move in and out of focus; more an illusionist's performance than changing the structure of the piece or the formation behind it. Just when an awareness of the setting becomes clear it evaporates to be replaced by a different realty; not abruptly and in many cases, not even immediately apparent as the natural movement coexists with the theoretical concept.

"Celtic Calls" opens with Jen Shyu's ethereal vocal that comingles with the instrumentation and then drifts toward symphonic characteristics laced with operatic qualities. The title suite focuses its four parts on the correlation of various human movements and if that sounds a bit sterile, it is not in execution. Though it may not always be clear which joints are being addressed, a sensation of liquidity is expertly conveyed, especially in Coleman's arrangements and fluid playing. "Harmattan" has more of a defined swing element but remains in keeping with the unexpected directions that the music takes throughout the collection.

There is a feeling that all of Coleman's compositional components are fully integrated and mutually exclusive at the same time, defying logic. There is little sense that Coleman is employing a twenty-one piece ensemble as their purpose in Coleman's vision is segmented and specifically defined to deliver alternating phases that rarely bring subgroups together in traditionally synchronous manner. Synovial Joints is full of brilliantly conceived pieces, performed by musicians who shine in their virtuosity. It is the finest and most ambitious work of his career.

Track Listing: Acupuncture Openings; Celtic Cells; Synovial Joints I - Hand and Wrist; Synovial Joints II - Hip and Shoulder; Synovial Joints III – Torso; Synovial Joints IV - Head and Neck; Tempest; Harmattan; Nomadic; Eye of Heru.

Personnel: Steve Coleman: saxophone, composer; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Anthony Tidd: electric bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Jen Shyu: vocals; David Bryant: piano; Tim Albright: trombone; Maria Grand: tenor saxophone; Barry Crawford: piccolo, flute; Rane Moore: clarinets; Jeff Missal: trumpet; David Nelson: bass trombone; Kristin Lee: violin; Chris Otto: viola; Jay Campbell: cello; Greg Chudzik: contrabass; Alex Lipowski: percussion; Ned Sacramento: percussion; Ramon Garcia Perez: percussion; Mauricio Hererra: percussion.

Title: Synovial Joints | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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