Friday, September 10, 2010

CD Review: Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Steve Coleman & Five Elements
Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Steve Coleman's liner notes for this album begin by explaining, "The main theme of this CD is the musical realization of temporal impressions. The recording of these compositions happened during the traditional time of the harvest [October 6, 2006], as the Sun was in the waning degrees of Libra. The previous full moon that occurred was the Harvest Moon, another sign that the harvest season was in full force...[M]y intent was a type of energy harvesting, i.e. the gathering, through musical symbolism, of the energy of particular moments." He goes on to say that the material is a musical interpretation of 13th-century philosopher Ramon Llull, who worked with numbers representing universal truths.

As time goes on, I personally feel that the idea of our lives being affected by vibrations could be true. It works on guitar strings when they aren't exactly in tune. The moon affects the tides. Get a bunch of people to think positively and who knows what'll happen. So maybe Coleman's thoughts about the timing of these recordings actually holds some ground. But still, most people will come back to the big question - does it swing?

The answer is yes. But it's still a pretty challenging listen. Of course, you ought to expect that from an album with a pithy title like Harvesting Semblances and Affinities.

The first remarkable thing that stands out on the album comes with Jen Shyu's performance. She is a vocalist who uses her voice like an additional instrument. Once in a while it sounds like she's using lyrics (She begins the album with a phrase that sounds like, "I sawwww a guy."), but unless she's garbling everything or singing in some strange foreign tongue, the bulk of her performance isn't words coming out of her mouth. Most importantly, Shyu pulls off the nearly impossible tasks of neither getting in the way of the other instruments or getting really annoying and ruining the music with bad theatrics.

Alto saxophonist Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Tim Albright play some patterns together that feel pretty rigid. Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass) are right there with them, either spurring on those oddly shaped phrases, and in turn giving them more clarity, or else they act as a counterpoint to them. It sounds funky, but not in the traditional sense. Don't expect 4/4 grooves.

Towards the end of the album, things get a bit too busy. Whereas "Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)" opens the album by displaying the potential of what will come as the album continues, its ending counterpoint "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)" sounds tense and staccato and hard to appreciate beyond it's technical skill, most of that coming from Storey's accents. "Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation)" sounds like everyone is blowing for themselves, which contrasts with the earlier, 14-minute epic "060706-2319 (Middle of Water)" where it seems like everyone is playing a written part, no one is actually soloing and the end result in an unrelentless, but intriguing piece. Yet up until those final tracks, Coleman really produces a impressive and cerebral set that has as much emotion at its core as it has chops and numerical basis. If he can include a piece by a Danish composer based on a Latin text and make it fit within his own compositions - save for Shyu's more operatic performance - the saxophonist needs to be explored further and further.

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