From May 16th to 21st 2017, Steve Coleman and Five Elements played a residency at the Village Vanguard in New York, the third year in succession that they had played the club, after their 2015 visit proved a great success. For Coleman himself, the venue had particular significance as that was where he had played regularly with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra when he first migrated to NYC from Chicago in 1978. In May 2018, Coleman and Five Elements returned for another Village Vanguard visit, by which time this album was due to be launched.
This two-CD set features just over two-and-a-half hours of live recordings from May 19th to 21st 2017, making it the group's first live album since Resistance is Futile (Label Bleu, 2001). It is a measure of the stability of Five Elements that Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Tidd all played on that 2001 album and were still present in 2017 for this one; the fifth element here, guitarist Miles Okazaki, is a relative newcomer, having first recorded with the group in 2012. Such experience together means that the five know each other's playing inside out, thinking and reacting as one, making their music both loose and tight.
The album is intelligently structured with each disc featuring a set, so that most of the pieces played are heard in two versions. Comparing versions, it is soon obvious that the group's music is not rigidly structured, and certainly is not tied to the head-solos-reprise format favored by some, but is far looser and uninhibited, with free-flowing solos. Consequently, the album is enthralling from start to end, and time in its company zooms by. The good news is that Vol. I in the album title indicates that there is more to follow, with Coleman's own sleeve notes indicating that the 2018 performances were recorded. Down the years, the Village Vanguard has been the scene of many fine live recordings, notably from Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jarrett and Rollins. Steve Coleman and Five Elements deserve their place on that list. A future classic.
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