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Steve Coleman and Five Elements - The Mancy of Sound

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Artist: Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Album: The Mancy of Sound

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Aug. 9, 2011

Last year’s Harvesting Semblances and Affinities was something of a breakthrough for Steve Coleman. Both his first album on a U.S. label in years and his finest version of Five Elements in eons, it also represented the fullest conceptual synthesis of some of his long-standing concerns: Yoruba devotional music, numerology and rhythm, astrological energies as compositional principles, and the like. And, oh yeah, it kicked outrageous amounts of ass. The same band — Coleman on alto sax, stellar vocalist Jen Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore, and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez — is back on companion album The Mancy of Sound.

It’s not just the album’s title — as in sonic divination — that ties the two records together, but the intensity and fluidity of their instrumental language. At the heart is an almost hyperbolic counterpoint and polyrhythmic character, but it’s held together with real elegance and sure swing by musicians who must have Coleman’s music in their blood at this point. While the tone of Mancy is slightly different than Harvesting, the same energy, interlocking rhythms, and carefully sculpted harmonic layers are all audible, even if here they sound more muted and glowing than flashing bright.

As with its predecessor, Mancy’s wonderful weave of voices — not least those of Coleman, Shyu and Finlayson — just knocks me out. And in particular, there’s something about the cool, at times even languid lines Shyu generates that contrasts so vividly with the heated urgency of Coleman’s playing (hear this on “Fire” and on both versions of “Formation,” especially the super-contrapuntal second version). Shyu’s lilt seems to glide atop the continuous rhythmic burble, creating an effect that’s got considerable momentum even as it seems to simply shimmer (this time around, Shyu actually gets some lyrics to sing, e.g. “nature’s call for progression with no fear”). Little rhythmic cells reoccur to orient the music, and the lines themselves never constrain the sudden darting improvisations.

The texture and tone and rhythmic conception of each piece are highly considered for Coleman. Considering his interest in symbol, ritual, and Eliadean spiritual formations, you know none of this is inconsequential stuff for Coleman. He’s deeply invested in the patterns — symbolic, musical, spiritual — that draw things together, so much so that on Harvesting he had the band play a medieval choral piece, and here spends nearly one third of Mancy on a suite rooted in his longtime study of Yoruban tradition. On the “Ifa Suite,” Coleman explores the four elements (there is the band’s name to reckon with after all) and their respective colorations, to each of which he assigns a specific rhythmic and melodic language. (Perez is central here, contributing vocals, too, often in concert with Shyu, whose upcoming duo record with Dresser should be a must.) Consult the “Earth” section for a vivid example of how a fully realized rhythmic and harmonic structure affords radical freedom — not just a sequence of obbligatos or anything so perfunctory, but substantive transformation.

I could enumerate highlights forever. Suffice it to say that it’s hard to imagine any “jazz” band performing at a higher level these days, nor a composer so vividly on top of his game. The Mancy of Sound and its predecessor are straight-up essential listening, and gloriously exciting music. The pulse quickens each time I put this one on.

By Jason Bivins

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