Steve Coleman and Five Elements: The Mancy of Sound
Pi Recordings

In the past few years, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman has witnessed a resurgence of interest in his work, due in no small part to his having joined Pi Recordings' roster and to the enthusiastic reception accorded his Harvesting Semblances and Affinities—that it was honoured in The New York Times as Ben Ratliff's number one album of 2010 is certainly evidence enough of that. Calling Coleman a pioneer isn't hyperbole, either: the man spearheaded the M-Base movement decades ago and continues to inspire listeners and musicians alike with his highly developed vision. Decades on from genre-defining albums like Rhythm People and Black Science, Coleman now follows up his well-received 2010 release with The Mancy of Sound. Complementing Coleman in a stellar incarnation of his long-time Five Elements outfit are vocalist Jen Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, bassist Thomas Morgan, percussionist Ramón García Pérez, and drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore.

Though Coleman's music is characterized by a geometrical complexity akin to a 1920s cubist still-life by Georges Braque, the musicians have no trouble navigating Coleman's knotty paths. The players might have changed over the years, but the approach is much as it ever was: the meters are still multi-polyrhythmic, the melodic patterns still complex, and the arrangements as intertwined as a Möbius strip. Prototypical examples of Coleman's penchant for multi-tiered arrangements and compositional intricacy, “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” (the two based on both the eight lunar phases and the eight trigrams of the I-Ching) alternate between concise solo and full-band statements, with Shyu's vocals threaded in amongst the instrumental ensemble and the two drummers generating a thick gumbo underneath. Here and elsewhere, Coleman's voice is immediately identifiable in its sharp-edged angularity and clarity of tone, and his playing can be clearly heard in spite of the thick swirl of sound churning in perpetual motion around him.

He typically infuses his music with ideas and theory and The Mancy of Sound is no exception, the most clear-cut example being the twenty-six-minute centerpiece, the Ifá Suite, whose four parts represent fire, earth, air, and water, and are symbolized by red, brown, green, and blue, respectively. Ifá itself refers to a philosophical system of the Yoruba-speaking people of West Africa, and Coleman even uses the codification of the sixteen Odú Ifá as the basis for the album's cover design and for the suite's rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements. During the suite, moods range from comparatively turbulent and energized (“Fire-Ogbe,” “Air-Iwori”) to ruminative and languorous (“Earth-Idi,” “Water-Oyeku”). It's worth noting that Coleman originally created the piece for Cassandra Wilson, who gave him the idea of composing music inspired by the Odú Ifá, in that—while not wanting to take anything away from Shyu, who does a more-than-credible job—the recording would have benefited from the presence of Wilson's distinctively smoky voice.

With density the norm, those moments when Coleman allows a less full sound to dominate end up being all the more satisfying when they occur. Originating out of a Coleman composition for saxophone and orchestra (commissioned and performed by the American Composers Orchestra), “Formation 1” and “Formation 2” offer respites from the full-band presentation in giving spotlights to multiple combinations of sax, trombone, trumpet, and voice; more importantly, the settings allow the listener an opportunity to more easily experience the purely visceral pleasure that Coleman's complex counterpoint can provide. On a closing note, Pi Recordings deserves some kind of medal for providing a home for the Steve Colemans and Henry Threadgills of the world. Such artists are rarely huge sellers in the marketplace, and consequently their sojourns on major labels end up being invariably brief. All praise, then, to Pi for enabling a visionary's music to be heard.

December 2011