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Steve Coleman and Five Elements - Functional Arrhythmias

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Artist: Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Album: Functional Arrhythmias

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Oct. 8, 2013

Steve Coleman and Five Elements - “Respiratory Flow”

Steve Coleman’s last two Five Elements records featured one of his most vibrant ensembles yet, which is saying something considering his exploratory career of three decades. It also represented his most elaborate synthesis of his interest in ritualism, seasonal cycles, and mathematical principles. On Functional Arrhythmias, the band is scaled back just a touch from predecessor The Mancy of Sound. Here altoist Coleman is joined by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson (whose debut as a leader, Moment & the Message, is killer), bassist Anthony Tidd, and drummer Sean Rickman, expanding to a quintet on five of the fourteen tracks, with the addition of guitarist Miles Okazaki.

Some might recognize the title as a subject, and a phrasing, associated with percussionist and polymath healer Milford Graves, whose investigations in circulatory rhythms has been central to his music for decades. Coleman’s appropriation of Graves’ insights also sees the saxophonist exploring a slightly new compositional methodology: he harvested contrapuntal ideas or small cells of pulse and melody from his solo improvising. This partly explains the slightly different, often looser feel of these pieces (though it’s not without precedent in Coleman’s canon): the superb “Cerebrum Crossover” builds from solo Coleman into generous, restrained quartet probing. Superficially, the rotund funk that Tidd and Rickman (vets of 1990s Coleman bands) deal out to open “Sinews” might seem a turn away from the intricate rhythmic constructions of recent records. But the music simply articulates differently, with complexity, pattern shifts, all still abounding, just speaking in a slightly different language.

The utter sympathy between Coleman and Finlayson is crucial to the lightness this dense music achieves, which is often sizzling when Tidd joins the organic (but quite tricky) unisons. As much as the music is brimming with energy, it’s also quite subtle, filled with small details and fascinating granular elements (Rickman is fabulous in realizing this tricky balance between sheer bounce and reserve). Listening to Coleman and Finlayson solo deeply in the weave of “Lymph Swag” or to the deep interlocking grooves of “Adrenal, Got Ghost,” the blend of complexity and grooving momentum is pretty irresistible. The addition of Okazaki gives tunes like “Medulla-Vagus” a more lateral feel, where the Graves influence bubbles up in cross-cutting rhythms; and on “Chemical Intuition” and “Irregular Heartbeats,” the guitarist digs into the stuttering pulse like Jimmy Nolen via Five Elements alum David Gilmore.

Functional Arrhythmias moves briskly through these terse, but usually quite rich pieces. And the group explores a wide range of feels, from the clattering, neo-Cuban “Limbic Cry” to the teeter-tottering “Hormone Trig,” from the bronzed timbres of “Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)” to the dizzy lope of “Respiratory Flow or “Assim-Elim.” But beneath the exterior articulation of these pieces is a multi-directionality that is shared among them, with densely interlocking weaves somehow achieved even though each band member is often playing a wholly distinct pulse (kind of like Graves, who claims that he can have his own body’s pulse articulating differently in each limb simultaneously). That’s organic as hell, and with Coleman and Finlayson playing at their most expressive, it’s hard to deny that Five Elements is in a deep purple patch these last few years.

By Jason Bivins

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