Review/ Interview: Steve Coleman’s Five Elements
(‘t Schuttershof, Middelburg, Netherlands, September 30th 2010, by Mischa Beckers)
In the early eighties, a collective of jazz musicians was formed in New York who integrated their high level of jazz technique with the street sounds of pop and rock. At the core of this project was the idea of learning by experience, and growing through creativity. They called this way of thinking M-base. Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who had previously made his name with – among others – Cecil Taylor, Abbey Lincoln and Dave Holland was one of its originators.
For nearly thirty years, Coleman has led the eclectic group Five Elements. With the more funk-oriented metrics he found a way to mix hip-hop free styling with jazz improvisation. Mystic Rhythm Society is his Afro-Cuban band. Coleman also works with the greats in jazz, is featured on many albums and is renowned for his workshops and classes. For the past year he has been an artist in residence at the Hochschule Luzern in Switzerland.
“I’m always doing research, composing and practicing, so those things go together,” Coleman told me. All of these things take many years to develop, so they are not separate projects to me. I’ve been working on this Astronomical/Astrological approach since at least 1994. Since 2006 I have moved into a slightly different area regarding this research, more detailed I would say. The music on Harvesting is part of this process, as well as the music on an upcoming unreleased CD that has already been recorded”.
The current Five Elements tour does not feature either drums or bass. Coleman wanted to take a step back from using drums. After many years of touring with drums, he was keen to see what could be developed without them. He wanted to explore certain temporal concepts without drums, and then later include them again. But he stresses that he does not separate projects: “It’s all a continuum,” he says.
At the moment Five Elements also features a vocalist, Jen Shyu. She not only uses her voice to sing and to recite words, but also goes far beyond that. The frequently heard statement that Shyu “functions as another horn” needs some nuance by Coleman. He told me: “Many of those reviews are basically copies of the original press release that Pi Records sent out when the CD was released. A lot of critics and writers just repeat what they read. There is nothing different that Jen is doing than the rest of the members of the group. People are simply not used to hearing a vocalist do it. Of course she is another instrument and of course the voice is a musical instrument. But when Cassandra Wilson was in my band, she also used her voice in this way. Of course in her own style. I’m not thinking about ‘another horn’, just Jen’s personality, her musical abilities, and the possible musical colours available”.
On September 30, Steve Coleman and Five Elements, presented by Muziekpodium Zeeland, performed in ‘t Schuttershof in Middelburg.
Whereas the prospect of this concert had been exciting, things did start off a bit stiffly. Coleman was using variations on staccato patterns. At first, it was difficult for the listener to latch on to them, either harmonically or melodically. When Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet joined in, he added long lyrical lines on top of the patterns. Gradually, other layers were formed: Shyu, with her eccentric vocal inflections and David Bryant on piano often stuck to repetitive rhythmic sounds using only two or three notes. Guitarist Miles Okazaki was working with an electronically produced sound an octave lower than what he was playing on guitar, and thus fulfilled, in his own unique way, the role of bass player.
For the first forty minutes, the group had difficulty to get into that collective flow, and what the audience saw was musicians barely looking at each other, and a saxophone player who at times appeared to show his irritation when things did not go quite as he wanted.
Coleman started the next piece, as he often does, with a hand-clapped rhythm. When the other musicians joined in, his original complex rhythm seemed completely to disappear. But it hadn’t. It was constantly popping up, always in different guises. Coleman himself dressed it up and played around it. Bryant picked it up every now and then as if his piano were a percussion instrument. Okazaki would suddenly isolate it from his angular and speedy bass lines.
This is Five Elements at its best. It seemed that Coleman wanted to play this game: to solve the jigsaw puzzle, to build up of subtle shifts and variations of patterns, and complex question-and answer sessions. Stripped of readily recognizable structures and harmonies, and of conventional rhythms – Coleman does not talk about regular or irregular time signatures – that requires quite some empathy from the listener.
Gradually the collective started connecting better with each other. Coleman especially was more visibly relaxed. The band even closed the set with an almost bluesy melodic piece. The saxophonist says he tries to play music that at the very least will spark off some curiosity, and possibly even contribute to expanding consciousness: “Sonny Rollins once told me that there are only two kinds of music, that which expands consciousness and that which contracts it. Sonny wanted to be a part of the music that expands consciousness. I have rarely heard a better definition for what we are trying to do. All the research, studying and practicing is because of this one thing, growth”.
This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form in Dutch on the Jazzenzo.nl website.