Steve Coleman has been serving up complicated, beguiling musical math for nearly a quarter century, from his early work with the M-Base scene beginning in the mid-’80s through his various projects with his group Five Elements. By now, we’ve grown accustomed to the weave and flow of his intricate rhythmic and polyrhythmic designs, as heard in its latest evolutionary phase on his fine new album, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities. Funky, heady, spiritual and cosmic, with references to astrology, Yoruban religion and more purely musical references, Coleman’s latest-his first for the venturesome Pi label, and his first American album in nine years-reasserts the musician’s importance in the larger scheme of jazz, and in music in general.
This cohesively organized sequence of seven pieces opens with “Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)” and closes with “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation),” and the middle passage is the fourth and longest piece, “060706-2319 (Middle of Water).” As a player, Coleman’s alto sax is a bracingly fluid and centering voice in an ensemble which is generally more concerned with cohesion than with individual glories, although Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Tim Albright are all fine, probing soloists in their own rights, and bassist Thomas Morgan’s ambling work tethers and rumbles from below.
Vocalist Jen Shyu’s role has become an important distinction in the textural weave of Coleman’s band, nimbly navigating wordless melodies or laying out various texts. The text elements include the Latin liturgical lines of the one piece not written by Coleman, Danish composer Per Nørgård’s “Flos Ut Rosa Floruit,” which, along with Coleman’s “Clouds,” veers at least slightly toward balladry. The remarkable drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s alternately mazelike and atmospheric style makes him possibly the finest drummer foil for Coleman’s concepts to date.
Although Coleman’s work might seem to hug the experimental margins of jazz, in fact, he has staked his claim in a more fundamental jazz ethos-the one involving the desire to find ways to integrate head, heart and other focal points of body and being. He works on the fringe to appeal to some universal ideal. Coleman manages to make music at once cerebral and visceral, challenging to the head while gripping to our sensual faculties. We feel the temporal motions and seductive complications in the music, and sense the profundity of numbers as well as a pure energy source at hand.