TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When alto saxophonist Steve Coleman arrived in New York from Chicago many years ago, his first steady gig was playing in the Village Vanguard's jazz orchestra on Monday nights. Now Coleman has recorded with his own band in that fabled room. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a convergence of two jazz institutions.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE COLEMAN'S "TWF (SECOND SET)")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman with his band Five Elements live in 2017. Coleman can write very complicated looped and layered music, more complicated than this relatively straightforward stuff. But sometimes, it's good to loosen the reins a little and let the cats run. That rewards loyal service. But beyond that, the longer the players are steeped in his methods, the less explicit direction they need. This edition of Five Elements had first recorded five years before. The musicians know what he's looking for.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE COLEMAN'S "RMT (9 TO 5)")
WHITEHEAD: Steve Coleman's Five Elements from "Live At The Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)." It's two sets on two CDs with most pieces played twice in differing, elastic versions. Coleman has a torrid alto sound and composes and improvises in a personal idiom, much like one of his idols, jazz god Charlie Parker.
But where Bird's fast runs were rooted in a swinging four-four groove, Coleman's time concept is closer to 16th-note funk, closer to a modern dance music. You can hear that jumpier beat in his saxophone playing at moments when he phrases like a dancer or drummer. Five Elements drummer Sean Rickman jumps right in with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS' "DJW (FIRST SET)")
WHITEHEAD: In his way, Steve Coleman is a successor to mentoring band leaders like Art Blakey and Betty Carter. He has a well-developed style he passes on and readies musicians to be fully focused while on the bandstand. His acolytes then apply his concepts in their own ways on their own projects, like the trumpeter who's played with them over 15 years and makes his own fine records, Jonathan Finlayson.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS' "TWF (SECOND SET)")
WHITEHEAD: To accent the funk, Steve Coleman makes decisive use of electric bass and guitar. Coleman likes brisk tempos, and bassist Anthony Tidd is the band's tireless sparkplug. Guitarist Miles Okazaki, who's made a string of his own rhythmically complex records, can vanish into the mix or float over those percolating grooves.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS' "NFR (FIRST SET)")
WHITEHEAD: Steve Coleman's intricate music has pointed the way for many younger leaders with their own loops and layers and lively rhythms. Coleman knows, as Duke Ellington did, that dance music goes down easier when coupled to a dance beat. For that matter, Duke wasn't above playing a little funk himself. Curious musicians keep an open mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. He reviewed Steve Coleman and Five Elements' "Live At The Village Vanguard." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Norm Eisen, President Obama's ethics czar and Obama's ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen also cofounded CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed legal challenges against President Trump alleging ethics violations. Eisen's new book is about his years as ambassador and the spread of illiberalism. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.