Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review: Functional Arrythmias - Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Personnel: Steve Coleman: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Anthony Tidd: electric bass; Sean Rickman: drums; Miles Okazaki: guitar (2, 6, 8, 10, 11).

The recording begins with “Sinews” (6:51), with an angular, business-like, slightly jarring theme played in harmony by sax and trumpet, at mid-tempo with a driving drum beat and electric bass line.  Coleman plays a brief solo of rhythmically disjointed phrases, and then Finlayson plays a solo that’s slightly more aggressive than Coleman’s.  Coleman returns for more loose improvisation, as does Finlayson.  Coleman and Finlayson join on the theme again to close the cut.  This is a nicely paced cut, with a strong rhythmic groove, almost danceable.

On “Medulla-Vagus” (6:33) Okazaki improvises lightly and elegantly against a gentle trumpet and sax background.  Then Coleman and Finlayson improvise casually in tandem, with electric bass and guitar for accompaniment.  At around 2 ½ minutes in, Rickman kicks into a mid-tempo groove, with Tidd joining in.  Trumpet and sax play an angular, intricate theme in harmony.  Coleman’s solo, with its disjointed fragments of phrases, echoes the angular character of the theme.  Finlayson’s following solo is more rhythmically varied.  Sax and trumpet play the theme again in harmony to close the cut.

“Chemical Intuition” (3:56) starts with some slow, free-ish interplay between alto sax and trumpet with light accompaniment from Rickman and Tidd.  The cut eventually (at around 2 minutes in) develops a slow, loose, earthy groove with the horns playing a melancholy theme and no further improvisation.

“Cerebrum Crossover” (6:45) has a lively but still disjointed theme played by trumpet and sax in unison, with a quasi-Latin beat.  Coleman plays a fitful solo, then Finlayson takes over and contributes a thoughtful solo.  The trumpet and alto then lock in on contrapuntal melody lines.  The cut finishes with trumpet and sax improvising together, though their dual effort doesn’t generate much heat.

“Limbic Cry” (5:36) has trumpet and sax again playing contrapuntal lines, this time on a more formal and stately-sounding theme.  Coleman’s solo is again fitful but includes a bit more variety.  Finlayson’s solo has a bit more drama and lyricism than Coleman’s.  Trumpet and alto again improvise together and close the cut by repeating the contrapuntal theme.

“Cardiovascular” (2:34) has a simple, insistent theme played by alto and trumpet, taken at an upper mid-tempo.  Coleman and Finlayson both seem to be more energized here in their improvising than previously.  Okazaki then solos briefly before alto and trumpet repeat the theme to close the cut. 

“Respiratory Flow” (3:50) begins with some gentle, melodic musings from Coleman, then the bass starts a line and the drums join in to develop a lower mid-tempo groove.  Coleman then plays a slow, atmospheric line, and he and Finlayson start slow, contrapuntal lines.  Finlayson takes over and plays well, but unfortunately Coleman soon interrupts him with his own improvising.  The cut closes with the trumpet/alto lines.

“Irregular Heartbeats” (3:57) has a somewhat sinister, mid-tempo groove laid down by bass and drums and features some clever, understated drumming from Rickman.  Then sax and trumpet play similar disjointed lines in dis-harmony.  Coleman then plays another fragmented solo.  Finlayson comes in and displays more variety and pacing in his solo.  The cut includes some barely-there background playing from Okazaki.

“Cerebellum Lean” (5:25) has Coleman and Finlayson playing contrapuntal lines again against an upper mid-tempo groove.  The two horns then alternate improvising with providing background phrases for each other, but this comes off as a bit forced and clumsy (like something they decided on at the last moment).  Then Coleman improvises a bit longer, but he is back in fitful mode.  The trumpeter then does the same, playing a bit more laid back.  The two horns then improvise in tandem to pretty good effect, and the cut comes to a quiet close.

“Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)” (3:50) has alto and muted trumpet on a slow theme in harmony, with Okazaki providing a slightly Middle Eastern feel in the background.  Then a related theme is played, this time by alto with open trumpet.  Coleman then plays a brief, coy solo.  Then trumpet and alto play a brief line, and Finlayson solos, again displaying a bit more variety and nuance than Coleman.

“Adrenal, Got Ghost” (3:05) has a staccato theme played by sax, trumpet, and guitar at an upper mid-tempo.  Coleman, Finlayson, and Okazaki then loosely improvise for a while.  The rhythm players then keep up a nice background groove for a while, but nothing really happens in the foreground.

“Assim-Elim” (3:32) has a slow-ish, droning theme (which is a bit reminiscent of Miles Davis’s tune “Tutu”), after which Coleman makes a brief solo statement, as does Finlayson, and then they improvise together, but the tune doesn’t give them enough to work with for anything significant to develop.

“Hormone Trig” (4:29) has Coleman starting off soloing with a strong, funky background from bass and drums (especially Rickman).  This cut is a bit more harmonically interesting, and, with more material and more time to work with, Coleman digs in with some solid improvising, his phrasing less clipped than usual.  Finlayson also sounds more engaged in his solo, though Coleman’s playing in the background during his solo is a bit distracting.  This is one of the more successful cuts of the recording.

“Snap-sis” (3:08) features frantic lines played up-tempo by trumpet and sax.  Coleman and Finlayson then improvise in tandem, carrying on the feeling of the frantic and fragmented theme.  Finlayson takes over briefly, but Coleman intrudes to carry on the busy dual improvising.  There are lot of sparks on this one, but not a lot of fire. 

Functional Arrhythmias is an exercise in composition of dual saxophone and trumpet lines, played over a fairly static background of earthy rhythms, and in saxophone and trumpet dual improvisation.  Unfortunately, there is very little variety in the composed lines, and the improvisations also lack variety, especially Coleman’s; he seems to be approaching his horn more as a rhythmic than a melodic instrument, which significantly limits his options.  Also, the interplay between Coleman and Finlayson that is integral to the overall concept of the recording doesn’t work well; the horns often just seem to get in each other’s way.  These are very good players, but their work feels hamstrung here.  (I’ve certainly heard Coleman play much better in other contexts).  I appreciate artists who try out and adhere to a unifying concept for a recording, but the one guiding Functional Arrhythmias seems to have worked against the players and resulted in an overall uninspired performance. 

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