There was barely a pause in the opening set by Steve Coleman's Five Elements at Rocco's Tuesday night. Yet the 90-plus-minute performance unfolded with a seemingly unending parade of fascinating music.
Did it matter that it was unfamiliar, that Coleman elected to say nothing about any of the music, that some of the pieces were filled with offbeat rhythms and thorny melodies? Not at all. And it is to Coleman's credit that he possesses the invention and imagination to justify his determination to have the music speak for itself.
Over the course of the set, the majority of solo passages were taken by the saxophonist, still a relatively low-visibility figure, despite the extraordinary work he has produced in the nearly two decades since he founded Manhattan's avant-garde M-Base Collective. And that's a bit hard to understand, since he plays with a consistently warm and engaging sound, even in his fast-fingered, horn-scouring runs. And the presence of a subtle seasoning of Chicago blues elements -- both in his playing and in occasional groove-driven compositions -- makes his music all the more accessible.
Coleman was joined in the front line by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who added his own often fiery excursions, sometimes via countering lines, at other times combining with Coleman in sudden rushes of furious, two-horn explosiveness. Supporting everything, generating galvanizing rhythms that shifted unexpectedly from quiet tranquillity to hard-edged funk to disjunct Eastern rhythms, drummer Sean Rickman and bassist Rich Brown kept the music's lifeblood flowing.
For the packed house Coleman's band's performance seemed to be a powerful experience, generating intense physical movements and enthusiastic cheers. That's not what one usually experiences at cutting-edge jazz programs, suggesting that Coleman, by making the music his primary concern, may be taking a path other artists would do well to consider following. Unfortunately, he was only booked for one more night at Rocco's. Surely it's time for a full-week run by this extraordinary artist.