REVIEW: Steve Coleman and Five Elements at 229 The Venue

The music stands were empty

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
(229 The Venue, 26 July 2018. Review and photos by A.J. Dehany)

In London at the mid-point of a brisk European tour, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s group Five Elements were drilled and self-possessed but also free and equitable. The group took to the high concert stage of 229 The Venue for a set sequenced into three loose suites of half an hour each. They had music stands for charts that recent footage shows them using, but tonight the music stands were empty.

Rather than improvisation, Coleman calls it "spontaneous composition". In 2014 he was awarded the MacArthur fellowship (as well as a stack of other gongs too). Other recipients of the "genius grant", Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey, also came through the ranks of the M-Base organisation that is strongly associated with him. Coleman's ongoing work since the 1980s has resulted in 20 albums under Five Elements, and many more besides.

Intense and rhythmically spiky, confusing and dense and intense, this is music some jazz fans find ugly. Coleman’s saxophone tone itself has a quality of salty sweetness. He’s a jazz player and theoretician into exploring the intricacies and diversions jazz has taken. He has studied and integrated the insights of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman into a free-forming approach of structured improvisation within loose modules with a restless richness.

At times one of the Five Elements has been a guitar or piano, but in some ways not having a traditional chordal instrument demonstrates better the M-Base approach to chords and chord progressions. I recall Seb Rochford, whose group Polar Bear was strongly influenced by Coleman, say for example that in his tunes “we do have chords, but we don’t always play them”.

Sean Rickman on drums is at full tilt most of the time; to sustain this level of listening is impressive. In M-Base music, rhythm is established then another completely different one comes crashing in over that. It’s physically disorienting but locks together precisely. It keeps you excited. The combinations are often audacious, taking a slow circling bassline often based in 5/4 or 13/8 alongside a fast almost jungle-like gallop that drops accents and bar-lines responsively rather than in accordance with a sustained time signature. Counting along is pointless, but there’s always that bassline going round under the firm hands of Anthony Tidd on the five-string headless electric bass – but even that varies responsively, as if to throw you off. And then there’s the horns issuing unison syncopated blasts or improvising with as much rhythmic as melodic detail. The group occupies several places on the rhythm scale all at once and it’s thrillingly visceral – like in the old days when you’d combine the languor of a cigarette with the kick of a sweet black coffee.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements at 229 The Venue

Spoken word artist Kokayi’s exciting rapped contributions are deployed for brief bursts. If anyone ever needed convincing about the inherent musicality of rapping, listen to the superior work of Kokayi. He’s fast and witty but tonally pitched and his rhythms are complex and just as locked in with the rest of the group, supported by Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s psychically connected unison blasts. It can still be hard to follow the words, as the sonic intensity is maintained, if anything intensified. In later spontaneous compositions there was more sustained input from Kokayi as the group sang chants and scat horn parts a cappella. I was getting down to a serious hook from Kokayi: “That’s the square/ that’s the cube/ that’s the root of it” – a neat illustration of the group’s yoking of the brutally funky and the nerdy mathematical.

Coleman says it’s not all about time signatures, but for those who like both their rhythms and harmonies crunchy it’s about the most exciting music there is. It is definingly modern, and it offers few concessions to your dinner party. There’s a running joke that Steve Coleman is the kind of anti-pope to Wynton Marsalis’s pontiff. They’re both giants and monster players but equally scholars and intellectuals – to me Marsalis feels like a historian in charge of a museum, polishing beautiful but lapidary monuments – and Coleman more like a scientist in a laboratory that’s actually a converted Winnebago, veering off road and back headlong, combining and recombining chemical elements that sometimes fizzle and sometimes explode.

5 comments:

  1. It was a great gig. I'm interested to know which 5 Elements recordings have a piano. I recall Geri Allen on synths very early on

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  2. Hi MJG! In the Penguin Guide to Jazz, Morton and Cook discuss the Mad Phat album as a process of ‘collective meditation’ noting the “shifting interplay of individual and ensemble elements” which they describe as “interesting”. They go on to discuss more formally written material “like the title piece and ‘Polymad Nomads’. ‘Alt-Shift-Return’,” they continue,”sees him switch to piano, to no particular purpose, but ‘Incantation’ is an interesting examination of musical space.’

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  3. Thanks for your response. I'd forgotten about Andy Milne on that album (Coleman only plays piano on one track).
    Now I'm going to have to check all the other 5 Elements albums for piano as well as in my head 5 Elements are a piano-less band but my head's not always correct to say the least.
    I'll be listening to Mad Phat first. It was a favourite for a long while but has been largely unvisited for quite some time.
    Also, I agree with your impressions of Kokayi, impressive contributions all night.

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  4. Def Trance Beat had Andy Milne and Black Science had James Weidman.

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  5. Robert Mitchell played with Steve Coleman too.

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