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Steve Coleman: Synovial Joints

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Here’s a radical notion: The music of Steve Coleman is frequently fun to hear. As Coleman gathers prestigious grants like so many pelts-a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2014 alone-and unfurls the ambitious Synovial Joints, featuring no fewer than 21 musicians on high alert, it may be reassuring to know that, along with being important, serious and unique, Coleman’s latest project is attractive.

That’s not surprising, given Coleman’s growing reliance on “spontaneous composition,” a recorded and transcribed process which involves him clearing his mind and then either singing or playing sax while simultaneously beating out rhythms. Seeing that he was reared on Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker and Von Freeman while growing up in Chicago, it makes sense that his subconscious often delivers brawny, angular, bop-inflected song fragments that are fitted and layered (thus “composed”) into songs. In addition, Coleman has always proclaimed himself to be in the tradition of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker and Coltrane, with a core unit featuring a horn-driven frontline (his alto and Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet leading the Five Elements ensemble has recently been the abiding staple), and embellishments specifically tailored to the added personnel.

Another Coleman tradition carried forth by Synovial Joints concerns his quest for grand connections, whether it is across cultures, through cosmology or understanding music via kindred planes of knowledge such as religion, astrology or, most recently, anatomy. Functional Arrhythmias, from 2013, used a quintet to explore music in the context of the heart, circulatory and respiratory systems. Synovial Joints tackles the musculoskeletal system with a big band.

The centerpiece is the four-part Synovial Joints suite, a 17-plus-minute-long work of escalating intensity and remarkable density. It’s probably Coleman’s most ambitious project since Genesis & the Opening of the Way, the eight-part, 80-minute opus for 29 pieces he recorded back in 1997. Synovial Joints is less stilted and more lyrical, owing perhaps to its shorter length and different instrumentation (more strings, fewer horns and percussion). But another reason for its striking sonic pastel is Coleman’s use of what he calls “camouflage orchestration,” derived from hearing different birds and other animals in the Amazon rain forest changing primary and secondary roles in the ambient jungle mix. You hear it in the way the piccolo and bass trombone sweep through each other like a moving Venn diagram on “Torso,” Part III of the suite. But this “camouflage orchestration” is in the alluring string arrangements throughout Synovial Joints (check out “Celtic Cells” just before Tim Albright’s trombone solo) and in the elliptical surge-and-recede sway of instruments on most of the songs.

A Steve Coleman project invariably brings cerebral heft and new conceptual catchphrases to help define his latest fixation. So I repeat, don’t forget the music. Go to “Harmattan,” a classic Coleman jam in that the mix of sounds swirl down and then spread back up and out like a smoothie in a blender, spiked by some syncopated bass and percussion reminiscent of “Cisco Kid” by War. Or “Nomadic,” which, according to the liner notes, “reimagines the horn ensembles of Chad during the time of the ancient Kanem-Bornu Empire,” but which more significantly rides a pair of glorious conga solos by Nei Sacramento and Ramon Garcia Perez down the home stretch of that imaginary Sahara Desert.

Synovial joints evolved in our bodies to facilitate ease of movement. At its best, Synovial Joints does the same.

Originally Published