Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse: Morphogenesis
Pi Recordings

Many a reviewer will naturally use Coleman's own likening of Morphogenesis to moves associated with boxing, among them feints, jabs, punches, and bobbing and weaving, as a way into the release; specifically, the alto saxophonist looked to physical movement outside of a musical context as a source of inspiration for the project. However, a more fitting analogue might be chess, given the degree to which the material shares complexity of design with the sport.

Note that Morphogenesis isn't the latest Five Elements recording, even if certain members of that outfit do participate. The fiery attack associated with that group is replaced on the Natal Eclipse release with a coolly calibrated style one might christen chamber jazz for want of a better label. Drums are absent, though Neeraj Mehta does play percussion on five of the nine tracks; it's worth mentioning, however, that percussion is used for extra colour as opposed to rhythmic propulsion: it's Greg Chudzik's bass that lends the music whatever forward drive it has. Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and tenor saxist Maria Grand are the dominant front-line forces, while clarinetist Rane Moore, pianist Matt Mitchell, violinist Kristin Lee, and vocalist Jen Shyu also perform.

With respect to composition and arrangement, Morphogenesis constantly dazzles. The music incessantly twists and turns as the players navigate Coleman's maze-like constructions, and hearing the instruments assemble into different combinations is engrossing. A given arrangement sees the voices contrapuntally weaving in amongst one another, with one briefly taking the lead before ceding to another and the others falling into formation around them; hear, as an example, how effectively solos pass like relay batons from one player to another during “Shoulder Roll.” Elsewhere, violin and wordless vocal textures punctuate winding woodwind patterns, such that all of the strands cohere into balanced wholes whilst retaining their definition as distinct elements. A zenith of sorts is reached when Coleman and company follow the labyrinthine pathways of “Morphing” with assurance for fourteen minutes. As taut and tightly controlled as his compositional designs are, Coleman strategically allows room for solo space, and as such both he, Finlayson, and Mitchell are often heard afront the others. “Pull Counter,” for instance, grants the leader and trumpeter ample solo room when all but the bassist and pianist drop out as support.

All that aside, much of the material feels through-composed with the reins held so tight a slightly freer presentation wouldn't have been unwelcome. As much as a representative piece such as “Inside Game” dazzles as a marvel of compositional design, “Roll Under and Angles” satisfies more, simply because its late-night, blues-ballad swagger feels less constricted by its arrangement. It's also refreshing to hear all concerned play with a modest degree of abandon during the urgent set-closer “Horda,” with all that pent-up energy finally allowed to release itself and the leader, Finlayson, and Grand all unleashing lacerating runs.

Coleman's music is often admired for its cerebral character and justifiably so. Yet as intellectually accomplished as it is, it can sometimes feel emotionally wanting. Consider by way of comparison Charlie Parker's “Bird of Paradise,” which packs a greater emotional punch in three minutes than Morphogenesis does in all of its sixty-two minutes. Maybe the comparison isn't entirely fair, but there's no denying Parker's music satisfies intellectually and emotionally in equal measure: one is awed by the genius of the technical facility while at the same time deeply moved by its depths of feeling, and the cry of his saxophone speaks to us still, the passage of seventy years notwithstanding. By comparison, one marvels at the incredible compositional craft in play on Morphogenesis but is rarely moved.

Still, it's heartening to see Coleman, decades into his career, still pushing forward and taking chances. He more than anyone knows that regularly changing things up is a smart way of not only keeping a career going but staying creatively vital and energized. And for anyone whose musical appetite might have preferred a new Five Elements release over Morphogenesis, word has it that a recent six-night stint at the Village Vanguard will be drawn upon for a live recording scheduled for release later this year.

June 2017