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Steve Coleman and Five Elements: The Mancy of Sound

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The Mancy of Sound is the second recording from the new edition of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, an octet that features trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, vocalist Jen Shyu, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore, and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez. As complex and mathematical as last year’s Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, The Mancy of Sound is in the end less accessible.

One could build a graduate-level course around this record’s inspirations, which include lunar phases, the natural elements and Yoruban philosophy. The album jacket’s carefully designed art references all of this. But ultimately the music must be judged on its own merits: Is it compelling? Does it elicit an emotional response? Is it pleasurable? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it doesn’t matter if it was inspired by the periodic chart or a scene in Killer Klowns From Outer Space.

We won’t keep you waiting: The Mancy of Sound is an immensely satisfying marriage of organization and what sounds like freedom; a strange, alluring amalgam of West African, Cuban and Brazilian music combined with the improvisatory nature of jazz. But it requires one’s full attention.

There are essentially three parts to this record. The first and last tracks-“Jan. 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan. 11),” the ones that refer to the lunar phases-utilize insistent rhythms whose origins (and time signatures) are hard to pin down. The chord changes sound like an aural approximation of an EKG readout. The second and penultimate tracks, “Formation 1” and “Formation 2,” omit the rhythm section-Shyu and the horns writhe around one another, in both contrast and complement.

The heart of the record is a four-part suite about fire, earth, air and water. On “Fire-Ogbe,” Shyu and Coleman play off each other; Coleman’s solo, in fact, is the response to the vocalist’s call. When he abates, Cuban percussionist Sandy Perez vocally duets with Shyu. “Water-Oyeku,” the most contemplative movement, lulls with its hypnotic percussion and Shyu’s Yoruban singing. One needn’t understand what point Coleman is trying to make to enjoy what he does.

Originally Published