Steve Coleman and the Five Elements

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's new CD, Functional Arrhythmias (Pi Recordings), is his best in many years.

Coleman, 56, is a fascinating figure in modern jazz. Born and raised in Chicago, he moved to Brooklyn in the late '70s, apprenticed in several top big bands (ranging from Thad Jones' to Sam Rivers'), and linked up with a group of other young Brooklyn musicians—including Greg Osby, Graham Haynes, Geri Allen and Cassandra Wilson—who formed a movement of sorts that they called M-Base, short for "micro-basic array of structured extemporization," which explored new and conceptually rigorous ways of fusing improvisation and structure. Over the years, Coleman also traveled extensively in India, delved deep in music theory, and recorded over a dozen albums with a band he calls Five Elements.

I find most of these albums more intriguing than satisfying—more schematic exercises than transcendent musical experiences. But Functional Arrythmias is a breakthrough. Coleman molds his music by shifting patterns—rhythmic, harmonic, melodic—but it all jells more than usual. He and his band make it swing. The album's tunes, all composed by Coleman, are sonic kaleidoscopes, bursting with movement and color.

The title, he explains in the liner notes, refers to the interactions of heartbeat rhythms and contrapuntal nerve impulses that operate in the multiple layers and cascading connections of the human body. He's long been influenced by the great drummer Milford Graves, who has done serious research in the biological basis of music, and with Functional Arrythmias is the rare Coleman album that isn't merely about this idea but embodies it. It's what the elder jazz giant named Coleman, Ornette, once described as "dancing in your head."

The band consists of Coleman's longtime collaborator, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, as well as the returning members of an earlier band, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, joined, on a few tracks, by guitarist Miles Okazaki. The music is dense with crisscrossing lines, but there's not a second when they're not all locked in tight, pulsating tandem.

The sound—engineered by Joseph Marciano at Brooklyn's Systems Two, except for a few tracks done by Paul Geluso at NYU, all of it mixed and mastered by the guitarist-producer Liberty Ellman—is sharp, vivid, full-blooded, and nicely layered.

Allen Fant's picture

FK -


Thanks! for sharing. Always great to hear about new Jazz releases!