20.09. – Happy Birthday !!! The alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman puts his trust in systems, though he’s too rigorous to let any premise go untested.
During his first set at the Stone in the East Village on Tuesday night, he kept setting up patterns and disrupting them, in variable cycles. Working as usual with Five Elements, his flagship band, he created the feeling of a meticulously honed aesthetic subjected to unrelenting pressure.
Mr. Coleman is holding down a residency at the Stone this week, connecting with about a dozen of the countless improvisers who have passed through his orbit over the last 30 years. Each set will involve a different configuration of collaborators, including Five Elements alumni like the guitarist David Gilmore and the cornetist Graham Haynes.
Tuesday’s kickoff featured a control group: Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Anthony Tidd on electric bass and Sean Rickman on drums. The same musicians appear on “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi Recordings), Mr. Coleman’s tough but approachable new album, which consists of pieces inspired by the rhythms of human biological processes. It’s a line of inquiry openly borrowed from the avant-garde drummer and homeopath Milford Graves, but Mr. Coleman stamps it clearly with his own style.
As on the album, he opened this performance with “Sinews,” a loping funk tune with a rubbery, deceptively simple bass riff. The melody — a series of tandem maneuvers for trumpet and saxophone — pushed against that foundation, setting up a spiky tension. And Mr. Coleman’s solo, which began with a trill as the rhythm section dropped away, gradually spiraled into abstraction, until he restated the riff, setting a new tempo and snapping the band back into its groove.
Much of the set followed a similar arc, with Mr. Tidd and Mr. Rickman locking into a busy rhythmic circuitry. One tune, arriving around midset and set at an ambulatory pace, had nine beats to a bar, parsed into subunits of descending order: four, three, two. Mr. Coleman improvised over that loop in short, staccato bursts, and then synced up with Mr. Finlayson, playing a reggae-like fillip. Then at some unspoken signal, the entire band shifted into a faster gear, and a different melodic theme — it sounded like “Pi” — that spun hard for a while until abruptly coming to a halt.
“Pi” comes from a Five Elements album released 15 years ago, around the time that Mr. Tidd and Mr. Rickman were active members. Within the last decade Mr. Coleman has worked with less funk-oriented rhythm sections, nudging closer to a sort of hyperkinetic chamber music; his steadiest recent partner has been Mr. Finlayson, whose every phrase on Tuesday was unpredictable and thrillingly sharp. (Mr. Finlayson has his own strong album due out on Pi Recordings next month.)
Another digressive rip arrived in “Cardiovascular,” a piece from the new album built around a pounding-triplet pulse, meant to evoke pulmonary actions. After bobbing around in that mode for a while, Mr. Coleman cued another updraft, leading the charge.
What followed that, closing the set, was “I’m Burnin’ Up” — another vintage pull, infused with an early-’90s hip-hop flair that Mr. Coleman made playfully explicit by rapping a phrase from the Digable Planets tune “Jimmi Diggin’ Cats.” At one point a kick-and-snare combo by Mr. Rickman led the band to swerve into “Salt Peanuts,” a bebop classic. It was another system to engage; Mr. Coleman couldn’t suppress his smile.