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.
In most cases, Coleman’s alto states a theme that the others use to shape their own contributions until a fully realized ensemble work has emerged. At times, though, a unison passage that does sound prearranged (though no doubt arising from an earlier improvised solo, remembered and codified) initiates a piece; in a few instances—Bunky Green’s “Little Girl I’ll Miss You,” Doug Hammond’s “Figit Time”— others’ compositions are used as platforms for the group’s improvisational flights. All of which means that this is a challenging, complex set that combines a sophisticated, serious-minded aesthetic vision with an equally, and paradoxically, serious-minded sense of mischief—we can never be entirely sure how truly “spontaneous” all of these compositions are.
Nonetheless, the exhilarating imaginative prowess of Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd, and drummer Sean Rickman ensures that we’re captivated throughout, and the acuity with which these “five elements” listen, respond to, and play off one another is such that the spirits of Armstrong and Oliver must be looking down and smiling upon what their legacies have wrought.