Last time we heard from jazz artist Steve Coleman, he was giving us one of the best albums of the year with Harvesting Semblances and Affinities. It was also a notable release because Coleman and his band the Five Elements were finally seeing American distribution through Pi records after being absent from the domestic market for nine years. But I would be lying if I said it was an easy masterpiece to swallow. Coleman’s writing style, instrumentation, and personnel choices, taken independently, can give your head a good scratching. Throw it all together into one sound, and you may not come back for seconds. In short, it was an acquired taste. Coleman’s interest in mathematics is the stuff of Bartok, cerebral and difficult to comprehend. And I haven’t even gotten to Jen Shyu’s vocal style yet, which is a frighteningly pitch-perfect delivery of legato scat that could pass for a language unto itself.
The Mancy of Sound maintains all of these traits. If you liked Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, then there is no question that you will like this one too. The Five Elements’ sound remains spiky as ever, thanks to staccato horns trading emphases and the use of two drummers as well as a separate percussionist. The concepts that Coleman carries around with him under the guise of M-Base have grown stranger over time, bringing us all to some good old fashioned moon watching. The album is bookended by two pieces that supposedly represent the eight lunar phases as they correspond to the eight trigrams of the I-Ching. Leadoff track “Jan 18” has a melodic figure carried by Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and trombonist Tim Albright. Coleman switches between supporting the idea and taking off in his own direction, often straight up. Around the 5:26 mark, Jen Shyu suddenly starts singing in English. The mysticism and/or lecture within doesn’t really sound like it was meant to be set to music, as clunky lines like “teaching the value of immersion” demonstrate. The album ends with “Noctiluca (Jan 11)”. The band continues to gaze skyward, cooperating musically in a way that feels more like the climbing of a ladder than the running of a race. The words again turn to a literal interpretation of what it means to look at the moon. Which is to say, things haven’t really cleared up.
In spite of such lyrical confusion, The Mancy of Sound is still a sure footed album. Musically, Steve Coleman and the rest of the Five Elements can make other jazz bands out there sound so very lazy in comparison. They play with such attack, but they don’t bludgeon you with notes. Their concepts sound cluttered on paper but are crystal clear in practice. In the hands of others, it would be a complete train wreck. The ambitious “Odu Ifa suite,” the album’s centerpiece, is one example of Coleman’s unique qualities coming to life. The four movements — “Fire-Ogbe,” “Earth-Idi,” “Air-Iwori,” and “Water-Oyeku” — are visualized on the album’s cover. See those dots that look like Morse code? They are rhythmic patterns that serve as a foundation for the pieces. The colors that house these four elements also determine the corresponding piece’s form. The origins of these ideas point to West Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, and the Yoruba incantations are mantra-like.
The remaining tracks, “Formation 1” and “Formation 2”, are excerpts from a saxophone and orchestra piece that Steve Coleman had been composing for a separate project. Asking today’s audience to savor the countermelodies he bounces off of Albright on these tracks is a daunting thing. Hell, almost everything about Steve Coleman’s musical position today probably looks like a bitter pill in need of some anchorage. It’s also an excellent antidote to all things drab and flavorless these days, if you are willing to surrender your ears and brain to the sideways algebra that is the Five Elements’ music. The Mancy of Sound is a challenge, but entirely worth it.