Steve Coleman has always been a musician who could find the rhythm in anything. His compositions would seem to indicate his soul is a metronome. Steve Coleman’s work has always seemed to exhibit finding the tune of the universe and all its disparate parts, as difficult as that concept may be to articulate. This description may not even be the best way to describe his work, but that may also be part of why it works so well. It’s hard to say why Steve Coleman’s music, with its many left turns and hard to grasp melodies, still seem so easy to latch onto. In the last year, much of the arts world has hipped themselves to Coleman’s rhythms– bestowing upon him a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. So after spending an album exploring the rhythms of the heart, in Coleman’s quest to explore the rhythms of the universe, he and his band, the Council of Balance, are looking at joints of the body with the new album, Synovial Joints.
The Council of Balance is a group of 21 musicians Coleman has put together to pull off an album that always seems to be churning like an engine. The band includes Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Anthony Tidd on electric bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Miles Okazaki on guitar, who you may know from Coleman’s Five Elements. Yet this undertaking also includes Coleman compatriots vocalist Jen Shyu, pianist David Bryant, trombonist Tim Albright, and tenor saxophonist Maria Grand along with numerous others. With such a large group, one would expect some massive sound throughout this album, but Coleman’s compositions are taut. Everything has its proper place here, these arrangements have ground to cover and to make good time, and they do by hell or high water.
The centerpiece of the album, the four part “Synovial Joints Suite”, incites a heck of a long more head nodding than one would expect. For a group of songs that focus on shoulders and wrists and necks, it’s a wonder why ankles and knees weren’t included too, the most important parts of toe-tapping in approval.
Yet this same air carries through the latter half of the album. “Tempest” as a song doesn’t attack the landscape but weighs on the ear like a steady, comforting downpour. “Harmattan” brings back the shifting goodness that is a constant in Coleman’s work. To a degree, the large ensemble creates a work with so many moving parts that there isn’t much room for improvisation, which may be a concern for those with reticence about large ensembles (namely, this author). However, everything about the rhythm here, what Marcus Gilmore and percussionists Alex Lipowski, Mauricio Herrera, Ramon Garcia Perez, & Nei Sacramento maintain, is just too infectious to deny.
Steve Coleman has done it again, making us all feel what we may never have even thought to feel before, and it’s all in the universe around us. Two years ago, he made us listen to our hearts with new light. Now, he’s shown us the rhythm that can exist in the connections we have in ourselves. Rhythm is everywhere, particularly when different things must work together. Coleman’s work continues to show us this, now more than ever.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.