Saturday, August 27, 2011

CD Review - Steve Coleman and Five Elements - The Mancy of Sound

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
The Mancy of Sound

Steve Coleman's Harvest Semblances and Affinities was one of last year's most complex and spellbinding releases, but The Mancy of Sound might be an even stronger set. Once again the alto saxophonist has created compositions with the inspiration of a non-musical sources - in this case, the philosophical system of West Africa's Yoruba, which is represented by a series of dots (in the four-part "Odu Ifa" suite). Two pieces ("Jan. 18" and "Noctiluca (Jan. 11)") are also based on eight lunar phases "as viewed from a specific place at a specific time." The eight musicians in the band frequently sound like they're operating on their own musical plains but the music comes together without sounding crowded or too ambitious.

Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is joined this time by fellow trap player Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez. The three blend together to the point that it's more of a challenge to try and single out Sorey and Gilmore than to just follow the music. Perez chants on some of the "Odu Ifa" movements, creating overlapping voices and rhythms in "Earth-Idi" and doing what sound like comments on vocalist Jen Shyu's performance "Water-Oyeku."

Shyu continues to evolve as a performer, her voice fully integrated into the blend of horns on an equal level. In the past, she sounded like she was just singing wordless lines, but this time clear English lyrics come to the surface the lunar tracks, including such observations as "Nature calls for progression." The line that closes the album - "None should overflow" - could refer to either the swirl of the music or something nature-based. Either way, it will hopefully inspire Coleman to include a lyric sheet in future releases.

The leader's own performance places his unique alto in the ensemble just as often, if not more, than it does in a solo spotlight. Three minutes into "Jan. 18" he emits some fast, short phrases that are pure Coleman. "Formation 1" and "Formation 2" both jettison the rhythm section for recreations of a piece originally written for saxophone and orchestra. It gets busy once trumpet and trombone (again Jonathan Finlayson and Tim Albright respectively) join him, along with Shyu, but no one ever gets lost.

The Mancy of Sound is one of those albums where the John Coltrane approach to album listening is probably best utilized: focus solely on the saxophone one time, trombone the second, etc. That's not an academic way of listening, but a way to fully appreciate some heavy music.

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