Advocate of the M-Base concept and Five Elements bandleader Steve Coleman has remained active over the past ten years, but his activity has largely been under the radar. He has had at least a half-dozen albums released on import labels (a few of these are available for download on his website), while John Zorn’s label Tzadik issued Invisible Paths: First Scattering, a solo album in the purest sense given that it was just Coleman playing his saxophone. You could say that American audiences have been a little deprived of Coleman’s highly creative blend of jazz, funk, and numerology over the past ten years. How else to explain the overnight success of vanilla dross like Nikki Yanofsky?
Enter Pi Recordings. They already gave us some of the best releases of 2009 (This Brings Us To, Vol. I by Henry Threadgill & Zooid, Travail, Transformation, and Flow by Steve Lehman, and Historicity by Vijay Iyer) and the prospect of them unleashing Coleman’s latest endeavor with his band Five Elements is definitely reason enough to get excited. And it certainly helps that Harvesting Semblances and Affinities is such a rich album, a wellspring of music that is both modern and organic.
To start with, the band members have an impressive amount of experience. Scanning the list of collaborations and accomplishments for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, bassist Thomas Morgan, vocalist Jen Shyu, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is an intimidating exercise in name-dropping. But instead of being a nest from which egos fly, Five Elements play with a collective skill that is beyond reproach. This lineup can pull off Coleman’s intricate compositions, ones which combine his M-Base (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations) fascinations with his search for patterns in nature (a quick glance at the cover art can give you an idea of this) without blinking.
Coleman insists that M-Base is not a musical style for creating change just for the sake of it. In fact, he doesn’t think of it as a musical style at all, but rather an environment housing both structure and improvisation in which the artist shows “growth through creativity”. Grabbing your instrument becomes another outlet for method acting, and one’s performance can be the culmination of life experience. Throw Coleman’s fixations on numerology and physics into the mix and you can see why the members of Five Elements need to be the best at what they do.
Opening number “Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)” is quite the face-slapper, juggling musicianship and composition with a dexterity that lesser bandleaders would kill for. An ascending scale from Coleman launches the tune, thrusting Shyu to the center where she struts her consonants over a syncopated pattern from the horn section, coming in with an odd and compelling dissonance. Just one minute in, this train almost comes to a complete stop, takes a break, then proceeds from the top only much slower. Where has this guy been?
“Clouds” does its best to be more vague. Coleman admits it in the liner notes, citing the ebb and flow of clouds in the sky as inspiration for the song. The shape-shiftings of “060706-2319 (Middle of Water)” do not want to come in neat packages either, choosing instead to tease you with its lack of conventional resolution. “Beba” also has a little laugh at the listener by dislocating the downbeat from the opening horn passage, giving you little hint of the rhythmic craziness that follows.
One song guaranteed to stop any listeners dead in their thoughts is the lone cover of the album, an ancient Latin text set to music by Danish composer Per Nørgård. Although it came from a different recording session, it functions as a lovely respite from such a cerebral album. Shyu’s voice hovers at the level of the horns in the mix, acting as another instrument in the ensemble rather than a lead to steal the listener’s attention. The melody and the chords can be a bit puzzling since Nørgård is known for his serialism. But the pull of the tune, no matter how many times you play it, is undeniable.
This description of Shyu’s role in the mix applies to most of Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, come to think of it. Normally the inclusion of a vocalist in a jazz ensemble invites the singer to trample all over the arrangements, to make themselves at home and become the star of the show. Not so with Jen Shyu’s contribution to Five Elements. Never settling on an easy melody and never phrasing her lines in any way that would qualify as “predictable”, the vocal presence in the music adds necessary tension. Shyu’s level in the mix insures that this tension stays tightly wound, neither being complacent nor falling off the rails.
It’s the kind of high-art tightrope act that can only come from artist with a quarter-century’s worth of composition and band-leading skills behind him. That artist is Steve Coleman. Growth through creativity indeed.