Steve Coleman and Five Elements in Philly
I saw Steve Coleman and Five Elements last night at Johnny Brenda’s. It was an extraordinary performance by Coleman along with Jonathan Finlayson trumpet; Miles Okazaki, guitar; an Damion Reid, drums. I hadn’t seen Coleman perform live in five or six years at his last performance with a larger group at the Painted Bride.
This group played the funky polyrhythmic music Coleman has long been known for. But the music in other respects was far different from the long and often complicated composed lines I heard the last time Coleman was in Philly. The “tunes” were based on stripped down, short elements or riffs chanted by Coleman and / or Finlayson. Damion Reid would pick up the rhythm and Okazaki would play a vamp line and off they would go. My impression—which might be mistaken—at least some or perhaps most of the riffs that started each section were improvised on the spot. Coleman and Finlayson would play longer improvisations that often began with variations on the short melodic / rhythmic elements but got more involved. They were two musicians who listened closely to one another as well as knowing knew each other’s tendencies and moves. Sometimes one would continue to play variants of the elements as accompaniment to other. Sometimes that would both play longer more contrapuntal lines. And sometimes that play more or less in unison. My sense was that these contrapuntal or unison lines was the only composed music I heard—although perhaps they communicate even better than I recognized. But they seemed to be playing heads they knew—if you can call something played in the middle of a tune a head.
While Reid and Okazaki usually started with the initial riff, they moved from them quickly, especially in the first half other long hour and a half set. Okazaki worked mostly in the lower register playing what were basically bass line, especially in the second half of the set. There were moments where the band was making incredibly funky music with a very strong pulse yet no one was playing the pulse at all—unless you count some vigorous toe tapping in the front line. It was really incredible to hear this vigorous funky music plaid is odd and changing time signatures without so much as anyone playing either back beat or on the one. Reid, in particular was incredibly inventive in playing around the beat and my favorite parts of the performance were when he seemed to be engaging Coleman and Finlayson in dialogues.
Coleman played a sort of ballad that seemed totally improvised with subtle accompaniment by the rest of the group. There were echoes of Ellington and Hodges throughout it (although Coleman’s sound is very far that of Johnny Hodges). I thought I heard very short phrases—three or four notes—from Prelude to a Kiss and other Ellington tunes. It could have been my imagination, but let’s just say the emotional resonance with Ellington’s ballads was there.
There were moments listening to Coleman and Finlayson when I thought “this must be what it felt like to see Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry playing live together.” Indeed, I kept thinking of the other Coleman during the performance as the music had the polyrhythmic excitement of Ornette Coleman’s late work together with the melodic and rhythmic invention of his earlier work.
The result was thrilling music with all the excitement of group improvisation at its most wonderful. Coleman has gone further than any contemporary musician I’ve seen recently in taking up Miles Davis’s (in the late 70s) and Ornette Coleman’s (somewhat later) efforts to move jazz in the direction of a non-Western, African inspired music in which the distinctions between foreground and background and melody and rhythm are constantly shifting and, much of the time, simply just fade away. This is music that is changes all the time, with melodies and rhythms emerging and then receding. Riffs that are initially put forward to accompany a soloist come to take over the piece becoming the basis for the next solo. And all the while—except in the ballad—there is a strong pulse that could almost be the basis for a kind of trance music. But it’s trance music for a collective whose trances are product of the most intense effort to listen and respond to one another that one can imagine.
Once could say this is music for the body and the soul. But is more true—and not the least bit pedantic in talking about a musician whose broad learning is evident in everything he does—to say that this music that comes out of, and serves the aspiration of overcoming the body / soul dichotomy that has for so long been central to Western civilization.
Two last comments: First about Finlayson since I’m a former trumpet player. He has the most original conception on trumpet I’ve heard in years. He plays mostly in the middle and lower register with very little ornamentation, kind of like early Miles, but with a much more forceful, though not brassy, sound. At a time when trumpet players like Dave Douglas seem to be seeking originality by moving as fast as they can away from the kind of bold, warm, brassy, sound of, say, a Clifford Brown, Finlayson is finding a different route and is developing a sound that is intrinsically more attractive on the horn.
And a more personal note: Coleman was wearing a black t-shirt with a white picture of Sam Rivers on it. On the way my wife complimented him on both the music and t-shirt. She told Coleman that she had met Rivers when my brother-in-law took lessons with him. Coleman said “Thanks, You were the only one who noticed the shirt. I never took lessons with Sam but I played with him when I first came to New York.” My wife said, “He was a sweet man.” Coleman nodded, smiled again and seemed to tear up a bit.