Oliver Ragsdale, the president of The Carr Center, an arts hub in downtown Detroit, stated Monday night that alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s eleven-day residency is the longest for a jazz musician in the Carr Center’s history. Ragsdale was introducing Coleman to a near capacity audience eager to experience Coleman and his current band Five Elements. The residency is an ambitious endeavor for Coleman one of the most accomplished jazz modernist, having earned during his three decade plus career the MacArthur genius grant, Doris Duke Artist Award, and has recorded thirty-one jazz albums as a leader. Coleman will conduct a series of workshops, outreach music educational events, a jam session, and a second full-length concert with his quintet. Coleman, 60, is a native of Chicago. Stylistically he has one foot planted in bop and the other in free jazz. Monday night Coleman showed he possesses more raw stamina than the average red-blooded American jazz alto saxophonist.
At this middle-age leg of his career, Coleman’s boyhood hero’s fellow Chicagoans saxophonists Von Freeman and Bunky Green influences are still present in Coleman’s blood. Coleman started his two-week run at the Carr with a marathon set of jazz that straddled the fence of avant-garde jazz with his Five Elements band trumpeter Johnathan Finlayson, drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and bassist Anthony Tidd. Finlayson and Rickman are the linchpins. Neither has a drop of inhibition in their blood.
The band opened with a five-alarm barn burning tune, clocking in just under fifteen minutes. On it, Finlayson establishes his worth immediately with a lengthy and purposeful solo. He’s right at home in the middle register of the trumpet. On the following selection, Coleman slowed things down, proving his band isn’t all piss and vinegar.
The band played the slow jam with a puppy-love sort of innocence you’d thing such a powerful jazz band would have little interest in. Immediately, after the slow jam concluded, the quintet dove into the deep in end of their set-list, not bothering to resurface for air until the concert ended. Coleman never addressed the audience or offered the titles of the songs the band performed.
The band was too busy swinging and taking the audience to never before experienced improvisational heights. Coleman didn’t talk to the audience until the end of the concert finally introducing his band-mates. No one cared that Coleman didn’t converse with the audience. The music was hot, colorful, and breathtakingly original.
The band performed for two straight hours, and neither member, as far as I could discern, broke a sweat. Coleman is the kind of creative force and leader who demands much from his band, and they made rising to his expectations look effortless.