Picks and Pans Review: C-I-P-H-E-R S-Y-N-T-a-X

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Strata Institute

For many young jazz musicians in these backward-looking times, Bird is the Word. Four decades after Charlie Parker led the bebop rebellion against the strictures of traditional swing, the complex musical syntax he created remains the lingua franca of serious improvisers.

Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, the co-leaders of Strata Institute and the two most talented young alto saxophonists on the scene today, are capable of playing Bird licks as well as any of their contemporaries. But they refuse to be typecast as well-heeled bebop choirboys. Instead they are intent on creating a new dialect that could restore the immediacy of jazz as a revolutionary music.

C-i-p-h-e-r S-y-n-t-a-x is a synthesis of the refined harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz with the streetwise musical vernacular of rawboned R&B. The album features Coleman and Osby compositions written with unconventional meters and voicings and packed with hip grooves that invite the listener to get down or be gone. A staggered backbeat at the git-go creates the illusion that a soulful octopus is sitting in on drums; in fact it is the work of two percussionists—Marvin "Smitty" Smith and Tani Tabbal—playing synthesized riffs tempered to sound as if they were produced on one acoustic drum kit. Electric guitarist David Gilmore's hard-driving funk is balanced during the session by Bob Hurst's skewed walking rhythms on acoustic bass. Meanwhile Coleman and Osby engage in a thrust-and-parry saxophone pass that is both lyrical and stiletto sharp.

Parker favored soaring melodic lines. Coleman and Osby have a stutterstep dexterity and a fondness for leaping on unexpected accents that are as breathtaking as the slam-dunk artistry of Michael Jordan. Flat-footed jazz traditionalists may be inclined to dismiss this album as just a new form of jive. But the in-your-face music of Coleman and Osby should be here to stay. It is the promise of the Word brought to life again. (JMT)

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