Review: Steve Coleman “Curves of Life”

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Ever since I got this album, it had been constantly on my (not properly kept) List of Greatest Albums of All Time. And it has been the only one to accomplish that feat. Time to review it – decades later.

And if you don’t want to read on: just get the album!

Introduction

Back in 1995, I received a Keith Jarrett album (“The Melody at Night with You”?) for christmas. I didn’t like it. Back in those days, you could still swap CDs at some stores, so I went to Ludwig Beck’s jazz department. In the “New Releases” section, the Steve Coleman album caught my eye. I had attended a Coleman concert some years before (ca. Rhythm People time), and while I was impressed back then, I couldn’t get into what he did on the corresponding album. I decided to give it another try, listened to the CD and got it.

Context

By the mid-90s, Steve Coleman’s Five Elements core ensemble was in its second major incarnation: Gene Lake had taken Marvin Smith’s drum chair and, most importantly, the guitar of David Gilmore had been replaced by Andy Milne on piano and synthesizers. Reggie Washington on bass, who had been with the outfit since 1990’s Rhythm People, was retained to form a group that had been together in this exact from since 1990’s A Tale of 3 Cities.

This core group would often be expanded with additional musicians to allow for Coleman to follow his more “non standard jazz” concepts. And in that context, Coleman’s appearance at Paris’ Hot Brass, where this album was recorded, has to be seen: Coleman played there with three different groups in total (next to the Five Elements also with The Metrics and The Mystic Rhythm Society).

So this album is, in the context of Coleman’s astonishing bandwidth, a document of his “roots” if you will, and that in a live context.

The Music

Starting off the set, we get a driving, funky tune with Multiplicity of Approaches, at around 15 minutes not an unusually long track for this album (with the exception of The Gypsy, all tracks are plus-ten-minutes). And what had been a slow development since Coleman’s earlier albums appears here in full force, namely (among other things) a complete breakdown of the conventional rhythm section/soloist and melody/harmonies/bass line organization. Having been a fan of Lake’s work ever since I first heard him with Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, I am immediately impressed by the “statistical density” (to quote Zappa) of his playing, which he achieves without overplaying.

Washington’s forte is clearly established as well, which is a very rhythm-oriented bass part without any (unnecessary) frills. Milne finally completes the arrangement, and does so by decidedly steering clear of too full voicings (I assume that’s an important aspect in Coleman’s work, which can immediately shift between late-romantic harmonic density and a Ornette-Coleman-Quartet-inspired complete lack thereof).

For Country Bama, David Murray, who had just returned from a poetry reading, was asked to join the band. The track obviously is built on the spot, as Milne’s reaction in playing off the themes Coleman introduces shows. Both go into a beautiful counterpoint, before Murray’s extended solo takes the music elsewhere, from Coleman’s very clear-cut lines to a more Ayleresque approach that nicely complements the other players’ performances, if at some times clashing with them.

Next is my personal highlight of the album, Coleman’s original The Streets smoothly moving into ‘Round Midnight. The tempo moves towards a gently grooving hiphop/R’n’B base, and the sonic picture becomes sparser; next to Lake’s gentle groove, most of the track has Washington only adding staccatto root notes more like a timpani, and Milne keeping silent. A perfect bed for Coleman to play out his melodic mastery, including his uncanny talent to apparently play more than one part with one saxophone (not by using multiphonics, but by very clever melodic arrangement). The track ends with a trade-four with the drums (great effort by Lake), before we move into what is my personal favorite version of Monk’s timeless classic. The musicians here manage to resolve the seeeming clash of hiphop groove and a bebop-era standard by simply making it work – masterful!

Drop Kick is a live rendition of that album’s title track. The rhythm section here has a much more relaxed groove (but not a less driving one) than the album version, and the lack of the album’s multi-voiced horn sections (here marked by Milne’s piano) actually help that effort. This track, to me, is a prime showcase of Coleman’s talent in working with (or against) the beat as a soloist, and at the same time creating tension and release using his melodic approach, turning this into a presentation of real-time counterpoint in (at least) two dimensions.

The core set ends with The Gypsy (Bill Reid), this time a truly old classic, and just as with ‘Round Midnight before, Coleman manages to recontextualize without strangling (this time, into a more bebopesque territory) together with Milne for a beautiful saxophone-piano duet (and the shortest track of the album).

The group then gets together with Murray and the three MCs from The Metrics for Burnin’ Up (Fire Theme), again offering a new take on an older Coleman original (Fire Revisited). Unfortunately, compared with the standard of the rest of the album, this closing track has too much of the “let’s get everybody on stage and jam together” feel or rather, measured by the size of its musical message, is at nearly fourteen minutes considerably too long. On the other hand, it would be a track I’d be perfectly happy with on a normal (as in “not so extraordinarily great”) album.

Summary

The brief version: get this album.

The longer one: On this album, The Five Elements have already established that intuitive working relationship of a great jazz band. Each musician, while shining in his own right, also seems the perfect fit to what Coleman has in stock for us. The choice of tracks is a great combination of different Coleman originals and two classics (one of them rather surprising in the context). This is what jazz, a great jazz live recording, a great ensemble, or simply great music is about.

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