Assessing Steve Coleman’s Systematic Milford Graves Homage
Is there counterpoint in the human body? A tapestry of it. A synapse fires, a muscle twitches, the heart responds and so on, pretty much ad infinitun. That concept serves as the inspiration for Steve Coleman and Five Elements‘ latest album Functional Arrythmias, out recently from the folks at Pi as you may well know at this point. The album title is a clinical term for normal aberrations in the heart rate taken from the lexicon of Milford Graves, the visionary acoustic scientist/pioneer in cardiac medicine/percussion virtuoso/historian who is playing a triplebill tonight, June 12 at 8 PM at Roulette celebrating his many projects and achievements. Among other things, Graves is credited with making the connection between the earliest known musical rhythms, dating from ancient Ethiopia, and the human heartbeat.
For those who haven’t already heard this album, what is there to say about it other than that it’s Coleman being his usual naturalist self, color flying from his sonic easel? It’s a reversion to an earlier sound of his, animated by a cast of familiar collaborators: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman. Although you wouldn’t know it from the opening tracks, most of the cuts here are short, clocking in at less than four minutes. Long circular rhythmic patterns frequently anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, other times Finlayson shadowing Coleman. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures. Nobody wastes notes.
Song titles refer to parts of the body, sometimes vividly, sometimes unexpectedly. The Sinews predictably rely on propulsive bass, over tricky cymbals. The Medulla-Vagus gives Okazaki his one chance to get expansive here, the brighter counterpoint of the horns contrasting with a surprisingly gentle rhythm. Chemical Intuition is a charmingly suspenseful, sostenuto mood piece, followed by two reggae-tinged numbers, the wry, dub-inflected Cerebrum Crossover and the harder-hitting, catchy Limbic Cry, with its playfully divergent and then reconvergent horns.
The Cardiovascular system works a staggered, galloping pulse with staccato riffage, while Respiratory Flow is the body at rest, systems handing off to one another in turn. Irregular Heartbeats are straightforward and nothing to be feared, explored here as a study in shadowing. Cerebellum Lean features Okazaki playing hook-driven funk on a resonator guitar. The adrenal glands are portrayed with Ethiopian-flavored modes; the Assim-Alim via bluesy spiritual variations. Hormones give Coleman his one most lengthy opportunity to cut loose on his alto with a characteristic translucence, while the wry Snap-Sis is aptly conversational. To steal a phrase out of the Christian McBride book, is this people music? In other words, is this something for Coleman’s vast fan base among his fellow musicians, or for the people too? Answer: both cerebral and emotive, like a complementary muscle group, yet another ambitious success for Coleman.
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