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Steve Coleman and Five Elements: The Mancy of Sound

Ian Patterson By

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Although alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's conceptual approach to composition has grown increasingly adventurous, high-brow or esoteric, depending on your viewpoint—with lunar phases and the Yoruba of West Africa's philosophical system providing inspiration here—The Mancy of Sound merely represents Coleman's relationship to the world, which is the font of most music of worth. Retaining the same musicians from Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010), Coleman's Five Elements follow-up shares its broad stylistic features, including non-western rhythms and multiple, interweaving voices, though it differs in the increased rhythmic energy and slightly sweeter aesthetic.

The two-pronged drums of Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore inject tremendous vibrancy, and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez's animation is equally central in infusing the music with West African spice. All three fairly bristle on "Jan 18," where Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright and vocalist Jen Shyu explore adjacent and often interlocking paths. Coleman tears free, coursing over tumbling drums, crashing cymbals, an insistent bass pulse and searing brass riffs, while Shyu's vocal, "nature's call for progression with no fear or aversion, teaching the value of immersion," could serve as the music's creed.

The four-part "Odú Ifá Suite" is the centerpiece of the CD---representing the elements Fire, Earth, Air and Water—and revolves around Shyu's voice. There's an elemental African flavor to the playing, particularly on the up-tempo "Fire-Ogbe," with Shyu's voice floating gaily over brass and reed solos. An intermittent motif serves as a signpost for the musicians, as trombone, trumpet and saxophone all pass the baton. Tight, near-unison riffing or counterpoint lends close support to the soloist. The high energy slowly dissipates, like dying flames. The gently cantering "Earth-Idi" features male African vocals, with trumpet, trombone and saxophone uniting in a delectable descending motif. Again, the energy dissolves, leaving just Shyu's mantra-like vocals, African vocal and percussion. There's a vaguely Duke Ellingtonian spirit about this beautiful composition.

Sweltering brass and reed and lively percussion bring an Afro-Cuban vibe on "Air-Iwori." A ritualistic element colors Shyu's vocal, which seduces over the babble of singing, chanting instrumental voices, rendering palpable the music's deep roots and spiritual vein. "Water-Oyeku" shares the rhythmic pulse of "Earth-Idi," and Shyu and an African male vocal trade back and forth over tightly woven trombone and trumpet. The music swells, enveloping, before gradually receding.

The suite is bookended by the harmonically arresting, percussion-free "Formation 1" and "Formation 2,"— allowing Shyu's captivating voice to emerge more fully. "Noctiluca (Jan 11)" features freer soloing, less buoyed by counterpoint, though when Shyu sings, a carpet of sound lifts her. A two-minute percussive exchange nicely alters the record's overriding aesthetic, before all the voices converge again in a stimulating combination of careful charts and free improvisation. Shyu's interpretation of Patricia Magalhães' poetry, sung in the song's tail, contains the same seeds of mystery as her wordless singing, as calm descends once again.

An important influence on Coleman, alto legend Charlie Parker once told journalist Nat Hentoff, upon listening again to Bartók's Second Piano Concerto, which he had previously dismissed: "I heard things in it I never heard before." Sage advice for anyone who hopes the wonders of The Mancy of Sound will reveal themselves.

Track Listing: Jan 18; Formation 1; Fire-Ogbe [Odú Ifá Suite]; Earth-Idi [Odú Ifá Suite]; Air-Iwori [Odú Ifá Suite]; Water-Oyeku [Odú Ifá Suite]; Formation 2; Noctiluca (Jan 11).

Personnel: Steve Coleman: alto saxophone; Tim Albright: trombone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Marcus Gilmore: drums; Thomas Morgan: bass; Ramon Garcia Perez: percussion; Jen Shyu: vocals;

Title: The Mancy of Sound | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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