“Every beat on the album was original,” said Herbie Hancock about his game-changing funk-jazz album Head Hunters. It’s the one aspect about that record that has stood out to me over everything else, and made Harvey Mason a drum hero in my book, his current gig in a smooth jazz supergroup be damned. But Head Hunters only had four tracks on it; imagine a record where every beat was unique over fourteen songs. That’s what Steve Coleman and his Five Elements just achieved on their upcoming album Functional Arrhythmias.
It may be hard to find other similarities between these two records, or just Hancock and alto saxophonist Coleman in general, but the latter has proven to be an influential innovator, too. Coleman was the main progenitor of the M-Base music that infused African, funk, soul, and even natural elements into jazz. M-Base was one of the very few truly original things to spring from jazz during the 80s. His main M-Base vehicle Five Elements continues more than thirty years after he started it, with many jazz notables having graduated from it to even greater things. I can hear many of the current crop of the cutting edge jazz musicians today trying to push the music forward using similar ideas, so it’s clear that even where M-Base is not being played, it informed the music of many of the younger cats. Currently, Five Elements is composed of Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, electric bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Sean Rickman, and for almost half of the tracks, guitarist Miles Okazaki. Tidd and Rickman return to the fold after several years out of the band, and Finlayson has stayed on continuously since 2000.
This is hardly the first time that Coleman has sought to use organic, natural and non-music phenomena to inspire his music; he often turns to recondite, abstract patterns produced by nature to inspire his music. But in the case of this current project, the model for his music is specifically the rhythmic synergy among the circulatory, respiratory, nervous and other biological systems of the human body. That surely explains song titles like “Respiratory Flow,” “Irregular Heartbeats” and “Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes),” and it’s an abstract concept that’s actually readily perceptible in the music. Listen to “Cardiovascular,” for example, at the beat galloping in an odd signature, like a heart skipping a beat at random intervals.
What is perhaps most amazing are the performances of Finlayson and Coleman, who play quirky lines together, other times reacting to each other all the while staying in compliance with Rickman’s impossible rhythmic patterns. That makes Tidd’s role especially vital, as he’s the guy left to define the harmonic properties of the song while providing the bridge between the drums and the horns. “Sinews” sets that template at the start of the album: an angular driving pulse, as Coleman and Finlayson articulate Coleman’s idiosyncratic melody, sometimes on separate threads, all while staying in that elusive pocket. “Medulla-Vagus” begins with no rhythm at all, just a casual conversation between trumpet and sax until Rickman imposes order and the regimented, stilted groove gets going.
While every song has some African roots, they’re more explicit on a song like “Cerebrum Crossover,” which is a very creative layering of harmony over overtly African palpitation. Coleman solos in the gaps between the beats, while Finlayson just glides over it. “Adrenal, Got Ghost” is quicker paced, with a percolating beat and the Finlayson/Coleman front line making frisky oscillations.
Within this framework Coleman has set up, the scenarios are nearly endless, and each song is accordingly using a different harmony, a different cadence, and, of course, a different beat. Like Brubeck and Hancock/Mason before him, Coleman took a fresh approach on the relationship between rhythm and harmony to form music that’s truly fresh but continues in the vein of what he’s been doing all along. And all he had to do was listen to his body.