Keyboardist Michael Coleman is a musician's musician. He favors tricky forms of conditioning, like practicing "Giant Steps" a hundred different ways in one sitting. He knows classical music and has the tonal precision of a concert pianist, but he traffics in abstract harmonies. Most importantly, he's a fascinating composer, prone to tweak genres in imaginative ways. Such qualities come to bear in Beep!, the chamber jazz trio that Coleman formed a couple of years ago with bassist Nate Brenner and drummer Sam Ospovat. The group's new album, which features ten tunes by Coleman and two by Brenner, totters between canonical and contemporary forms. It's what you get when three jazz musicians get together to make "art rock": a very well-schooled approach with a sensibility that resists cleanness or consonance.
You Are a Friend kicks off with "One for Tilly," a piece with an elegant baroque head and tightly shaped solos, wherein everything comes together with perfect sine-wave roundness. It's an apt introduction to Coleman's style, since he tends to wind everything around a single unifying theme. Yet he doesn't always favor snug harmonies or round numbers. The chord changes on "1524 7th Ave." — a song about Coleman's gritty East Oakland neighborhood — are itchy and abrasive. "Hostile Takeover" is a dizzying swirl of notes and drum fills. The rock tune "Machines," in which Coleman and Brenner sing together in a kind of wheezy falsetto, applies weird harmonies to an indie-rock template. In fact, most of the songs on You Are a Friend incorporate a lot of outré ideas in a space that's quite well contained. It's rigorous, it's heady, it's often a little perplexing. Fortunately, there's pleasure on the surface, too.
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