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Steve Coleman dominates day two of Newport Jazz Festival with double set

August 5, 2013

shapeimage_1Though they’re not related biologically, Steve Coleman is Ornette Coleman’s heir. More than just a last name and an instrument (alto sax), they share an approach. They both favor short, squiggly phrases that fuse catchy blues melodies to syncopated rhythms, phrases that can be infinitely altered via small adjustments and which encourage simultaneous improvising by all the members of a band.

Steve Coleman demonstrated this lineage yesterday at the Newport Jazz Festival. He was given an unusual double slot so he could showcase three different projects with three different bands. The first hour was devoted to the world premiere of “Synovial Joints,” a large-ensemble piece that found three jazz musicians (Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and drummer Dafnis Prieto) joined by the Talea Ensemble, a 10-piece chamber orchestra from Long Island. With its rich mixture of Latin drumming, jazz horns, string trio and woodwinds, the piece hinted at a lot of potential, but the musicians seemed under-rehearsed and not fully integrated.

The second hour began with a long, unaccompanied duet between Coleman and pianist David Bryant, which segued into a similar duet between Coleman and drummer Marcus Gilmore (who had dashed over to the stage from his show with Chick Corea) and then a similar duet between Coleman and Finlayson (who had played earlier in the afternoon with the Mary Halvorson Quintet).

The afternoon’s third phase grew out of the second. Electric bassist Anthony Tidds joined in and the full quintet, called the Five Elements, continued in the same vein. Coleman, wearing a red T-shirt and a backwards blue baseball cap, generously shared the sonic foreground with his colleagues. By the end it had been 40 uninterrupted minutes of vigorous give-and-take. Coleman’s potent scraps of music were constantly coaxed into song, only to dart away down a new path of fragments.

It wasn’t easy music, but it well rewarded the listener’s attention. There was an exhilarating sense of obstacles encountered and overcome, encountered anew and overcome once more. Nonetheless, the show took place on the festival’s smallest stage, backed up against an arched gate in the stone wall of the 19th century’s Fort Adams, and there were still empty seats. Jazz as a genre continues to struggle for an audience, but the most challenging, most gratifying jazz struggles even more.

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