According to many who witnessed them in action, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong were so locked into one another on the bandstand that they could devise complex, spontaneous improvisations in perfect unison—so in synch that listeners couldn’t believe they hadn’t been written in advance. (Armstrong himself later confirmed that they had, indeed, been created extemporaneously.) Steve Coleman and Five Elements are engaged in something similar on Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1: blurring, even further than jazz musicians usually do, the distinction between “improvising” and “composing.”
To be clear, this music is not exactly the kind of post-Ascension “free” improvisation often associated with collectives such as the AACM, BAG, and their musical progeny. For the most part, it sounds tightly structured, based on recognizable melodic and rhythmic motifs that recur, in various permutations and different settings, over the course of the two live performances documented here. The melody of “Embedded #1,” the set’s centerpiece, was “composed in one extemporaneous moment, without any editing,” Coleman’s notes tell us, explaining that his mission here is to “creat[e] a personal language comprised of musical words . . . and phrases that mutate in various ways to form dynamic conversations.” A method of spontaneous composition, in other words, in which the “conversations” among composer and bandsmen are so intimate as to result in a fully realized work created in the moment, not unlike those seemingly miraculous locked-in duets between Armstrong and Oliver roughly a century ago.