Steve Coleman’s music has long been animated by a bobbing and weaving, thrusting and parrying dynamism. On Morphogenesis, the first recording by his drummerless Natal Eclipse octet, the brilliant, game-changing conceptualist makes the connection to boxing explicit in his liner notes and song titles like “Dancing and Jabbing” and “Shoulder Roll.” What allows this album to stand out is the group’s capacity for floating like a butterfly with its spinning variations—it’s not a stretch to think that Muhammad Ali impacted Coleman’s alto saxophone sound—while mining such deep, rigorous emotion.
There has always been a happy antic quality to the way Coleman’s bands coalesce around heady combinations of blues, bebop, funk and African beats. Unlike the saxophonist’s other recent ensembles, this one features a pianist, Matt Mitchell, whose dark chording and muscular hard-bop solos anchor the music in a fresh and flexible way. Another key contributor is Jen Shyu, whose beautifully nuanced wordless vocals enhance the sweetness of tunes such as “Dancing and Jabbing” and blend magically into the rich Ellingtonian harmonies of compositions such as “Morphing.”
Also featuring Coleman’s exceptional trumpeter of many seasons, Jonathan Finlayson, violinist Kristin Lee, clarinetist Rane Moore, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand and bassist Greg Chudzik, the band ranges from the knotty repetitions of “Inside Game,” with its bright, staggered melody, to the spooky, chamber-style “NOH,” one of five tracks featuring the brilliant percussionist Neeraj Mehta. As a soloist, Coleman is in characteristically unstoppable form, but the blues influence of Charlie Parker on his playing seems to have deepened. There are moments, within the ever-expanding circle of motion that is Natal Eclipse, when you want to freeze-frame a solo of his, step back and admire it in all of its expressive power.