Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Steve Coleman and Five Elements: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi)

Review of a live set by the saxophonist and his quintet

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
Cover of Steve Coleman and Five Elements album Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets
Cover of Steve Coleman and Five Elements album Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets

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.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published