Jazz Composer and Performer as Philosopher...
These thoughts were triggered by the impossibility for me of reviewing the notable new album Lucidarium by Steve Coleman and his band, the Five Elements. Normally, someone who has spent over twenty years reviewing jazz albums would not make a big fuss in print about the inability to write an album review. In this instance, the feeling of being inadequate to the task of an album review is instructive and stimulating, not merely an admission of personal incompetence.
Lucidarium is a type of jazz oratorio, comparable only to extended compositions by Duke Ellington (Black, Brown and Beige, A Drum Is a Woman), Charles Mingus (The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) and Anthony Braxton ( Composition No. 96 ). I would also suggest a context for Coleman's recording by placing it in the same musical universe as the late symphonies of Charles Ives as well as the operas of Wagner. Lucidarium within the context of Coleman's prodigious recorded output should be thought of as part of a four part epic, beginning with The Sign and the Seal: Transmissions of a Metaphysics of a Culture, Genesis & The Opening of the Way, and The Sonic Language of Myth.
These four albums share an extraordinary tapestry of neo-funk rhythmic play, post bop flavored individual and group improvisation, and a strong compositional structure grounded in complex storytelling. The stories Coleman's stories tell are deeply philosophical and spiritual parables drawn from Egyptian, African, Caribbean, and American sources. They are open-ended stories full of mystery. Listening deeply to Steve Coleman's recordings is like trying to decipher a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphs by flickering candle light without knowledge of the language. This is not jazz that is light entertainment - but it is not strictly cerebral either, in spite of the remarkably deep intellect of the music's creator. For all of the philosophical underpinnings of the music, it is clearly performed with enormous passion. And it swings.
To reduce the musical riches of Lucidarium to a concise jazz review seems wrong-headed. There is simply too much happening, and one need only remember the absurdly superficial reviews of Coltrane's Ascension and Meditations in the jazz Press of the 60s to realize the folly of reviewing concisely musical works demanding essay or book-length treatment. Suffice it to say that Lucidarium, like all of Coleman's major albums, is a musical odyssey mapping a profound philosophical and spiritual search for truths about the nature of the universe. It is quite listenable as it proceeds through ten movements executed by nineteen musicians. Instruments rarely heard in today's jazz, viola and harmonica, for example, played magnificently respectively, by Mike Maneri and Gregoire Maret, are showcased. Coleman's alto sax solos are consistently thoughtful and probing, as are the tenor sax explorations of Ravi Coltrane.
Look, I'm trying to write a review of Lucidarium , teasing with praising the album within a standard review format. But something resists, particularly since Coleman's recordings are so emphatically more than the simple sum of individual musicians soloing. This is jazz as the deepest form of intellectual quest and spiritual prayer. It cannot be simply summarized. It demands being experienced on multiple levels, and demands rapt and total attention from the listener. Those who hear Lucidarium with such concentration will receive their reward. Coleman may never receive his just reward from the majority of jazz critics who set their sights much lower than does Coleman. But Coleman's reward must be that of the most intrepid of musical experimentalists. Coleman knows the thrill of composing jazz that is, to borrow a famous book title, as serious as your life.
Tracks: 1. Ten Steppin' (Door to the Sixty), 2. Lucidarium (Beyond Doors), 3. Plagal Transitions, 4. Meditations on Cardinal, 5. Kabbalah, 6. Beyond All We Know, 7. Diasporatic Transitions I, 8. Diasporatic Transitions II, 9. Egypt to Crypts in Hieroglyphs, 10. Perspicuity
For more information about Steve Coleman, visit www.m-base.com .