May 18, 2024

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Photos: Two very different groups that flag up both the breadth of Steve Coleman’s output … Video

As Britain attempts what seems like an ungainly improvisation out of Europe, American artists more adept at the art are thankfully still finding a way into the old continent.

With his residency in this well-appointed restaurant in the vast cultural centre of La Villette in Paris extending for no less than two weeks, Chicago alto saxophonist-composer Steve Coleman appears a cipher of a more worthwhile politics against the backdrop of Brexit and Great Britannia, be it an ally of rulers or an enemy of rules.

The double-bill this evening features two very different groups that flag up both the breadth of Coleman’s output and the depth of his artistry. Yet the intensity of the audience reaction reflects the substantial impact he has made in France since the late 1980s, which was duly enhanced by the memorable Hot Brass sessions of the mid-1990s. He is very much a known quantity here. Numerous workshops and master classes have strengthened his ties with local musicians and the fact that there is more or less a French version of one of his latest ensembles, Natal Eclipse, underlines as much. As the new album Morphogenesis makes clear the band is both a departure from and reinforcement of core Coleman principles. The absence of drums lightens the overall palette, yet there is a momentum and intricacy in the horn scores that bear the hallmarks of the leader’s approach to writing and arranging. Melodies are often very rhythmic with phrases that move from lengthy, fluid undulations to more contained, terse lines, that underline the long-held love Coleman, whose alto solos throughout the set are as pithy as they are potent, has of all things staccato as well as allegro. There is both a beauty and austerity in the work, but the input of the French players joining Coleman, and fellow Americans trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and electric pianist Matt Mitchell, is sadly marred by a mix that leaves their contributions close to the edge of silence. The clarinet, in this instance played by Catherine Delaunay, is virtually swallowed whole by the other reeds, which is a great shame as the instrument has a key timbral role on Morphogenesis insofar as it brings a gauzy, malleable character to the ensemble voice. Having said that, Selene Saint-Aime’s often spare, distilled basslines, sometimes hingeing on no more than two pitches, are very effective insofar as they lend a pleasing floating, gliding quality to the music.


If Natal Eclipse is air then The Metrics are earth and fire. The group with close to three decades of history has seen personnel changes, yet its conceptual substance remains unchanged: an exploration of rhythm with a hard edge in terms of sound, particularly low frequencies. The combination of Sean Rickman’s drums, with those tinder dry offbeats on the snare and Anthony Tidd’s imperious drive on the bass, is not so much a solid foundation as a kind of endlessly revolving, if not rotating floor for material whose structural complexities are not incompatible with the ability of the band to move the crowd. Originally The Metrics toured with a dancer called Laila and within minutes of their arrival those hovering at the bar are loosening up and getting down. In odd meters. The head spun numbers games or difficult-to-spot start and endpoints in the life cycle of a phrase may stem from Coleman’s artful, mathematical mind yet there is no absolute break with what might pass for popular culture. Whether you call it blues, funk or hip hop, the inventions of black music beholden to Coleman’s hometown of Chicago and his adopted city New York are really a part of his wider vocabulary insofar as these genres present priceless raw materials in both rhythm and timbre. We hear the ghosts of James Brown and Maceo Parker and, most importantly, the living spirit of Kokayi, one of the three MCs from the original Metrics ensemble, who frankly steals the show on many an occasion. Largely unknown beyond his work with Coleman and Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, Kokayi is arguably one of the most dynamic and creative rappers in contemporary hip hop, yet to assign him solely to the genre would be a mistake. His brilliance lies in the unforced ease with which he shuttles between rapping and singing, so that his voice becomes a mighty, all-terrain vehicle, which is particularly effective for Coleman’s music given its tendency to cross the line between what might be called swinging and grooving. The sound soars upward to gospelised soprano and also dives deep into burly baritone sub-sonics, a dark, dense wedge of tone that commands the whole venue. Coleman ends the evening singing a few lines, which, in turn, act as a springboard for the rest of the band. The building blocks are gradually, but decisively, assembled and enriched. As with many Coleman pieces counterpoint is prominent, and the interlocking, weaving and criss-crossing of patterns, their hypnosis engineered by the metronomic precision of the drums and bass, in particular, once again elicits a new burst of energy from the dancers. All of which makes for a fascinating debate about music for head, heart and feet. The dividing lines between the serious and the funkulous are brilliantly blurred.


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