Functional Arrhythmias-- Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's latest project could be described as a salute to the human body. As Coleman explains in his liner notes, "Functional Arrhythmias refers to paths of modulating heart-beat like rhythmic melodies that function similar to the contrapuntal firing of nerve impulses, where communication is occurring in simultaneous but related layers. I have always been fascinated with time-related themes, and this is my attempt at creating a musical analogy of the interaction between the circulatory, nervous, respiratory, and other biological systems of the human body." Each of Coleman's 14 compositions has a title derived from medical terminology, which might cause the listener to anticipate music as coldly clinical as a surgeon's scalpel. This is far from the case, however, as the very accessible music possesses the vitality, especially rhythmically, of a fully-functioning human physiology. Coleman takes his inspiration from "the great percussionist, polymath and natural healer" Milford Graves, who studied the connection between music and the human body and soul, but the M-Base movement, in which Coleman has had a key role for decades, has also focused on the influence patterns in nature have on music. Performing Coleman's "tunes"--some preconceived, others more spontaneously created in the studio--is a reconstituted Five Elements, the leader's group since 1981. Electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, who date back some 15 years, are back in the fold, joining the superb trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson (member since 2000), and newcomer Miles Okazaki on guitar for several tracks.

Coleman and Finlayson play the playful tooting theme of "Sinews" above the overlapping, contrary rhythmic patterns of Tidd and Rickman. Coleman's alto solo soon becomes a contrapuntal encounter with Finlayson, and then the twosome's roles reverse with the trumpeter in the lead. This game of musical chairs continues for the duration, with content that's always intriguing and enticing. For "Medulla-Vagus," Okazaki's guitar plays ruminating lines, while Finlayson provides mostly long tones and Coleman undulating phrases, in a two-minute prelude. Bass and drums then originate an insistent pulse for the intricate unison theme offering from alto and trumpet. Coleman's solo dances infectiously prior to Finlayson's more spacious and deliberating effort. Their thematic reprise is all the more effective due to the quality of these improvisations. The rubato "Chemical Intuition" finds alto and trumpet wafting lightly about until a motif emerges that is worked over in riff-like fashion to conclusion of this moody, ethereal selection. Coleman and Finlayson weave flavorfully to launch "Limbic Cry." Both players develop motifs with brisk runs or fervent cries, as they complement each other wonderfully both melodically and harmonically in what appears to be a totally spontaneous performance.

A restless yet loose-limbed rhythm pervades the likeable theme of "Cerebrum Crossover," and lingers behind the soloists as well. Coleman's choppy, staccato attack is also adopted by Finlayson for his improv, and their subsequent counterpoint dialogue entrancingly sustains the tension. Rickman's African-tinged mallet rhythms evoke a pumping heart, albeit rapid, as Coleman and Finlayson delineate the circular, jabbing theme of "Cardiovascular." Resolute alto and trumpet solos, plus fleeting shadings from Okazaki complete this 2:34 spellbinder. Coleman's unaccompanied prelude to "Respiratory Flow" is lyrically lustrous, and he continues on in that vein when joined by bass and drums. Finlayson contributes a rich-toned statement of his own, and Tidd and Rickman end the piece with succinct individual elucidations that are apt and sympathetic. Todd's bass formulations during "Irregular Heartbeats" indeed have an inconsistency to match the piece's title. The theme as presented by Coleman and Finlayson, and their appealing solos, also have a certain flightiness that makes them hard to pin down.

The intertwining of Coleman and Finlayson is particularly engaging, energetic, and inspired on "Cerebellum Lean," with TIdd and Rickman establishing a surging platform for the front line's relentlessly fluid phrases and extended passages. "Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)" contains a brooding amalgam of guitar, alto, and trumpet that has a nearly sinister undertone, and out of which Coleman emerges a bit more warmly, followed similarly by Finlayson. "Adrenal, Got Ghost" has alto and trumpet erupting in a dancing, darting conversation, in contrast to Okazaki's more laid back, sparse excursion. Tidd and Rickman's interaction furnishes an hypnotically tantalizing underpinning. Coleman repeats a catchy motif to begin "Assim-Elim," as Finlayson plays variations on it, only to again rotate leading roles in their two-streamed elaborations. Tidd then appropriates the opening motif to complete the circle. "Hormone Trig" features Coleman's winding solo above a throbbing rhythmic foundation that is bolstered by Rickman's cymbal splashes. Finlayson is equally compelling in his turn, and the leader joins him for yet another telepathic meeting of the minds. This prime track both opens and closes with the same stimulating stand-alone thematic strain. From the onset of "Snap-Sis," the two horns interlock in urgent, staccato counterpoint, from which springs biting solo exclamations. Tidd's buoyant bass punctuations are transfixing for the entirety of this final track.

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Scott Albin