For three decades, alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman has been working out a mode of complex musical math, creating dense yet sensuous, viscerally engaging music that can be both challenging and seductive. Jazz remains at the core, providing the improvisational imperative of Coleman’s world. But the music’s dimensions stretch into far-flung spaces and structures, drawing on inspirations from mythology and mysticism, and utilizing an elusive sense of rhythm and meter that can only be described as “Steve Colemanesque.”
On Synovial Joints, Coleman blends the leaner elements of his Five Elements band and a larger ensemble with strings, percussion and other instruments into a feast of orchestral ideas and sounds. The results are one of his finest recorded projects to date, offering proof of his intellectual and creative vibrancy deep into his unique artistic journey.
Last year, Coleman received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, followed by a 2015 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. These grants allowed him to convene his ambitious Council of Balance ensemble for this recording. The four-part “Synovial Joints (suite)” relates energy forces and freely rotational, nonlinear connective motions in the body — as well as in the ensemble. It opens with “Hand and Wrist,” as a vaguely Latin groove simmers beneath contrapuntal lines and a restive meshing of parts reminiscent of Henry Threadgill, albeit as heard through Coleman’s singular filter.
On “Celtic Cells,” a sinuous melody on alto sax and Jen Shyu’s vocal suggest a deceptively straightahead moment. But then the metric plot thickens, and trombonist Tim Albright delivers a strong solo in the lucid thicket. “Harmattan,” named after dervish-like Sarahan winds, utilizes a thrumming, angular Afro-Cuban pulse beneath a thematic maze. The track also boasts Coleman’s boldest solo on the record. The closing “Eye of Heru” issues slinky-taut, brainy-funky propulsion, and an odd downbeat-dodging drum part by drummer Marcus Gilmore. Its fadeout implies an operative story to be continued, a sense that listeners often derive from Coleman’s open-ended music and philosophies. He’s still searching, which is a beautiful, regenerative process that rewards audience and artist alike. —Josef Woodard