CD review: Steve Coleman and Five Elements

The Mancy Of Sound
(PI Recordings PI38)

The saxophonist and composer still uses M-Base to describe his music. No, wait a minute, that’s wrong. He uses the acronym – it stands for Macro – Basic Array Of Structured Extemporizations – to describe a “way of thinking about creating music” and, he stresses, “not the music itself”.

There is an awful lot of describing of methods in Coleman’s work. In the cover of this new disc, he says: “The music found on this CD represents the utilisation of some concepts that have become increasingly important to me as part of my compositional and improvisational process. Although divination (or mancy) is generally thought to be the practice of foretelling future events, may take on divination has more to do with using sound to project the quality and character of a visualised moment in the mind’s eye.”

For some of this music he goes on to link this visualisation process to lunar phases which further link to the I-Ching.

Jonathan Finlayson, in Birmingham earlier this year playing with Steve Lehman. (Picture: Russ Escritt)

I don’t begin to understand all of this, but I am trying, and the same goes for the music that results, made by Coleman with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Tim Albright on trombone, Jen Shyu on vocals, Thomas Morgan on bass, Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Ramon Garcia Perez on percussion.

What I do know is that I like a lot of what I hear. It sounds every bit as original and fresh as the explorations in thought that have preceded it, and the band is extraordinarily together in following Coleman’s hitherto uncharted musical paths.

The CD’s centrepiece is the four-section Odu Ifa suite which links not only to Fire, Earth, Air and Water, and the corresponding colours red, brown, green and blue, but also to the philosophy of the Yoruba-speaking people of West Africa, and an extended diaspora which includes Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.

The horns and voice move together and in overlapping patterns over a sinuous and inviting groove. There is a Yoruba chart of dot patterns on the cover, and Coleman has used these patterns to directly inform the  rhythms of the suite.

I suppose what I am left with is a feeling of some inadequacy that I cannot fully understand the concepts and philosophy that leads to this music, but a sense of “what the heck” gratitude that it has led to such intriguing and richly inventive music – improvisations and structures in happy co-existence and prompting responses on one’s ears, head and heart that are just as fresh and cleansing as the music itself.

The “Air” section of the suite is a fine place to start. If you have listened to much African music, or any Henry Threadgill, say, you should be adequately prepared. But you won’t have heard anything quite like this before, nevertheless.

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