Steve Coleman & Five Elements floor all comers with Mayweather-style beat magic


They say that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's always difficult and often strange, but sometimes it feels totally absurd. Take this set from boundary-breaking US altoist and composer Steve Coleman and his Five Elements group at central London's 229 The Venue, a club more often associated with punk and indie bands. What can I tell you about it? Only that it was one of the most mind-expanding, rhythmically-audacious gigs I've ever seen. How can I make you feel like you were there? All I can do is offer an analogy.

Like Miles Davis, Coleman loves boxing. His last release, 2015's Morphogenesis, was a musical exploration of the sport and you can hear the influence of it in his writing. Watching this performance felt like stepping into the ring with Floyd Mayweather. The music was a storm of punches – visceral but pinpoint precise. Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson jammed out hypnotic riffs and intricate lines, alternating solos like sparring partners – latching onto motifs, developing and abstracting. Anthony Tidd laid down absurdly funky, electric bass grooves and syncopated pedals, including one that was so fast it sounded like the shuddering whirr of fists on a speedball. And drummer Sean Rickman drove them along with needle-sharp hi-hat patterns and snapping backbeats.

Sometimes they locked into trance-like grooves for minutes at a time before triggering confounding metric modulations and sudden shifts – the musical equivalent of fancy footwork, shoulder rolls. Rhythmic. Feints and changes, of tempo and-if-this-ludicrous-punctuation-is. Tripping. You up then good: you have some idea of. What it... was like.

Every so often the group's towering MC, Kokayi, stepped up to the mic, channelling the fire of a Baptist preacher, spitting his own rhythmically inventive bars and providing snarling, street-smart commentary on everything from social media ("tweet, tweet"), puppet masters and PTSD to the story of Icarus: "I'm not going to play it safe, Dad. I'm just going to spread my wings and fly." He was great to watch. As he rapped he flexed his hands – heavy with bracelets and rings – and mimed playing the pining-ponging pitches of his vocal lines on an invisible trumpet or guitar. Every questing, poetic salvo earned him a huge cheer.

A lifetime of musical research and experimentation was countersunk into the performance. Cutting hornlines brought echoes of one of Coleman's early inspirations: James Brown sax player Maceo Parker. There were glimpses of jazz standards – including a radical abstraction of 'Round Midnight' and a jabbing, close-harmony riff in the horns that eventually revealed itself as a play on 'Salt Peanuts'. And there were myriad ideas derived from Coleman's deep investigations into the rhythms of West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the past, Coleman has said that he thinks of himself as a West African griot – a musician, storyteller and custodian of tradition responsible for passing knowledge on. Late in the set, he adopted that persona, beating a 3-2 clave pattern on a cowbell and accompanying it with wordless hollers. Then came funk beats and distorted bebop lines and jaw-dropping gobbledygook vocalising performed by the whole band in unison. By which point I was metaphorically out for the count, sprawled on the canvas, looking up at Coleman and the Elements through a vortex of cartoon stars. Afterwards, my equally punch-drunk musician friends decided against going to the pub: "What are we going to talk about after that?" Pity the fool who had to write 500 words.

Thomas Rees