Steve Coleman at the Montreal Jazz Fest

You could kind of hear it coming. About 15 minutes into Five Elements’ show at the Montreal Jazz Fest, drummer Sean Rickman was waxing WAY fluid. He’s often demonstrated an unusually keen glide when driving leader Steve Coleman’s idiosyncratic M-BASE lingo, but on July 5, at the Ludger-Duvernay Theatre, Monument-National, everything was rolling with a little bit of extra grease.

The horns often act as percussive instruments in Coleman’s music. The leader’s alto and Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet are bound to each other when the quintet is playing at its best, their parallel swoops ultimately enhancing the deeply focused attack that is the group’s onstage goal. In Montreal, their power was such that Rickman was able to concentrate on the kind of minutia that puts the audience on the edge of their seats while dazzling ‘em with a delirious array of chops. Dynamics are often in flux with Five Elements, and this show found the rhythm section working to keep the action molten.

The way the ball gets passed around has a lot to do with polyphony. There were extended passages where the band echoed the strategies of New Orleans brass outfits, each player chattering until reaching a joyous hubbub. Bassist Anthony Tidd had a lot to do with its success. His constant percolation energized everything around him. Guitarist Myles Okazaki’s physical plucking added to the animation as well – his role was to keep the outfit pliant.

Cross-hatched patterns were everywhere. No surprise: Coleman’s recent discs on the Pi label are all about the interconnection of individual lines. But after decades of watching the band, this was the first time I heard connections to the gripping minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The group was so tight, its melodic momentum pretty much mowed you down.

Hats off to the bandleader, now 59 and fully established as a visionary iconoclast who heard a new sound and continuously nurtured it. Coleman’s triumph was palpable in Montreal. Playing utterly singular music, they got plenty of house from the fans. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you laugh right out when it quickly turns a corner, or downshifts a gear or two without warning, and the bursts of applause that erupted from pockets of the room spoke to victory at hand.

Now on to Newport Jazz Fest on July 29.


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