Steve Coleman and Five Elements The Mancy of Sound Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Flickering phrases of eerie dissonance emerge from Coleman’s latest, impressive set.

Kevin Le Gendre 2011

Although jazz guide books invariably flag up Steve Coleman’s unorthodox approaches to meter and rhythm, it is worth noting that the Chicago alto saxophonist has been extending what might be called Afro-Latin jazz since his debut three decades ago. His comprehensive research of Yoruba philosophy as well as music has produced a signature sound that is not entirely disconnected from Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s innovations of the 1940s, but it’s significantly more enigmatic and ancestral. It’s as if Coleman conceives of newness by way of fathomless oldness, of concepts that reach as far back as possible – and on this set, recorded in 2007, the sense of fraught, dawn-of-time ritualism is marked.

Curt, compressed basslines jockey with percussion patterns that stumble forward rather than land rigidly on a designated beat to give the seven-piece band a firm, flexible chassis. But it is Coleman’s sax, Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet, Tim Albright’s trombone and Jen Shyu’s voice that make the strongest impact. They act as overlapping or concentric circles – as befits the diagram on the album sleeve – that rotate around a central tonal idea, playing flicker-like phrases that are often unsettlingly, eerily dissonant.

Shyu’s role is absolutely crucial as her mostly wordless timbres, loosely evoking Jeanne Lee or Lauren Newton, make her a piercing, flute-like presence in the midst of the heavier brass, and that brings balance to the dynamic range. Coleman’s music can be overwhelmingly dense and Shyu infuses air and light. If she excels on Odu Ifa, the four-track song cycle based on Yoruba divination (comprising Earth, Fire, Air and Water), then the album’s lengthy closer, Noctiluca, which features the leader’s most measured, incisive soloing, makes an essential point: as closely tied to non-western folklore as Coleman’s music is, it draws greatly on European religious and classical traditions, be they Gregorian chants or opera.

These forms are astutely integrated (horns frequently imply a 3/4 flutter without waltzing per se, vocals suggest sanctity without being sacred), confirming that Coleman’s ultimate value to modern creative music lies as much in the considerable breadth as well as depth of the historical sources that he constantly channels.

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