Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance – Synovial Joints [TrackList follows] – Pi Recordings PI57, 61:56 [4/28/15] ****:
(Steve Coleman – alto saxophone, orchestrations, producer; Jonathan Finlayson – trumpet; Maria Grand – tenor saxophone, cowbell (tracks 2-6, 8-10); Barry Crawford – piccolo, flute; Rane Moore – clarinet, bass clarinet; Jeff Missal – piccolo, trumpet (tracks 1-8, 10); Tim Albright – trombone (tracks 1-2, 7-10); David Nelson – bass trombone (tracks 1-2, 7-10); Kristin Lee – violin; Chris Otto – viola; Jay Campbell – cello; Greg Chudzik – contrabass; David Bryant – piano; Miles Okazaki – guitar (tracks 1, 3-6, 8-10); Anthony Tidd – bass (tracks 8-9); Alex Lipowski – timpani, xylophone, triangle, gongs; Nei Sacramento – congas, talking drum, berimbau (tracks 1-2, 8-9); Ramón Garcia Pérez – congas (tracks 8-9); Mauricio Hererra – bongos (tracks 7-9); Jen Shyu – vocals (tracks 1-2); Marcus Gilmore – drums)
In jazz jargon, a joint is sometimes a slang word for a place to hear jazz. But on alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s latest opus, the 62-minute Synovial Joints, the parlance is medically—and musically—related. Synovial joints refer to the mammalian joints which can pivot, flex, contract, relax and bend. One of Coleman’s objectives for his new outing was to investigate and explore such joints and apply those features to music which flows linearly but also cyclically: music which moves but also rotates or spins. Coleman’s compositions (which include a four-part title suite) use those physical body structures within a musical concept he dubs camouflage orchestration, which is inspired by Amazon rainforest sounds. In other words, Coleman pays particular attention to how instruments are distributed, so there is a perception of foreground, middle ground and background, where layers are revealed by different levels of listening.
Previous Coleman projects, such as 2013’s intellectually similar Functional Arrhythmias, have utilized his working group, Five Elements. Here, Coleman expands his musical arsenal with the inclusion of a larger band he terms the Council of Balance, which has up to 21 musicians, including members of Five Elements: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson (also in the Steve Lehman Octet), bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okazaki and drummer Marcus Gilmore (credits include the Mark Turner Quartet and Gilad Hekselman). Other Council of Balance participants are tenor saxophonist Maria Grand; Jeff Missal (piccolo, trumpet); Barry Crawford (piccolo, flute); clarinetist Rane Moore; trombonist Tim Albright (see also Steve Lehman); pianist David Bryant (his résumé includes Louis Hayes, Jeremy Pelt and Dezron Douglas); plus several percussionists, a vocalist, a string trio, and two more trombones. That’s a lot of artistry to work with and remarkably the music never sounds uneven, overcrowded or cramped. That’s a testament to Coleman’s orchestrating and compositional flair. It’s no wonder he received three prestigious awards in 2014: a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius Grant); a Guggenheim Fellowship; and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.
Coleman begins with the aptly-named “Acupuncture Openings” (an excerpt can be heard online). The melodies and improvisations represent the energy emanating through the meridian channels (in traditional Chinese medicine, the paths through which the life-energy streams), while the application of the acupuncture needles are embodied by muted brass instruments. Mixtures of hard and soft dissonance characterize the force affecting the electrical course of the nervous system. During the mid-tempo tune, percussive elements extend over orchestral sounds and a slightly skewed but soulful rhythm. Near the end, Finlayson has an enthused dialogue with Bryant. The lengthiest piece is the bucolic “Celtic Cells,” so-titled because it has a mediaeval, pastoral quality. This standout includes European folk and Asian patterns, and is initially pervaded with Jen Shyu’s evocative and ceremonial wordless chanting (she has previously lent her vocal talents to a Linda Oh album). The track then progresses via Coleman’s lamenting sax, complementary strings, and moody percussive adornments; and eventually an intuitive apprehension develops between the alto sax and Albright’s trombone.
Ireland isn’t the only geographical location which influences the material. There are swirling tonalities and multi-tiered orchestrations throughout the nearly nine-minute “Harmattan” (a short, in-studio version can be streamed online). The piece gets its designation from a dry, dusty wind which blows through West Africa from the Sahara Desert. Coleman replicates the mysterious, sandy landscape with his overlapping arrangement, where instruments appear to fade in and out; and there are asymmetrical phrases which supply a cryptic atmosphere. “Nomadic” is also stimulated by the same environmental area. This is a musical interpretation of a passage through southern trans-Sahara. Here, Coleman re-envisions the horns of ancient Chad, emulating the traditional monophonic melodies of that region. Coleman uses a compelling theme which juxtaposes Western jazz and a funk-fueled refrain against an African percussive undercurrent fronted by cascading congas. Coleman’s commitment to his camouflage orchestration comes to fruition on the concluding number, “Eye of Heru,” which is based on an historic Egyptian deity who assumes many forms. Thus, Coleman organizes this cut to reflect Heru’s myriad appearances: assorted instruments mirror discrete personalities. But Coleman also harnesses those instruments to echo nature: fire, air, water and earth; in so doing, Coleman leaves space in the middle of “Eye of Heru,” a calmer “eye of the hurricane” section where Okazaki contributes a descriptive solo.
The centerpiece is the four-part, 17-minute title track. This diversified composition has equal and connected portions, some symphonic and vibrantly vivid (at times Charles Mingus can be sensed), others spiritual and esoteric. The first movement, “Part I: Hand and Wrist,” is the longest, and highlights Finlayson’s sparkling trumpet, Coleman’s meditative but soaring alto sax, a circling vamp and Gilmore’s polyrhythmic cadence. Gilmore’s involvement becomes more heated in “Part II – Hip and Shoulder,” where his rhythmic aerobics commingle with correspondingly metrical sax and piano. Coleman magnifies his audio canvas on “Part III – Torso,” where brass furnishes a strengthening of the thematic ideas. “Part IV – Head and Neck” takes the proceedings further into big band terrain: seemingly all 21 players add to the setting. Synovial Joints is not an album which is appreciated on first listen. It needs time and space to get acclimated to what Coleman has created, and to absorb his musical intricacies and range. This one-hour performance was fittingly well engineered by Joe Marciano and Max Ross at Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio, and then mixed by Tidd and Coleman at Philadelphia’s TidbiT Sound. Throughout, the equilibrium of the instruments is done with clear precision and sonic resolution.
TrackList: Acupuncture Openings; Celtic Cells; Synovial Joints (suite): Part I – Hand and Wrist, Part II – Hip and Shoulder, Part III – Torso, Part IV – Head and Neck; Tempest; Harmattan; Nomadic; Eye of Heru.