Steve Coleman and Five Elements: The Sonic Language of Myth

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
The Sonic Language of Myth
RCA Victor

TENACIOUS, EARNEST, QUIXOTIC, and cerebral, Steve Coleman is a rare bird in American jazz. He cofounded New York's M-Base musical collective 20 years ago, a creative hub for musicians striving to create directly from their life experiences. Coleman has since watched M-Base cohorts Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, and Geri Allen find the mainstream while still hewing to the traditions of bop and pop.

Now, on the heels of a two-disc opus called Genesis & the Opening of the Way, the adventurous saxophonist-composer drops what may seem his most pedantic and marginal album ever, Sonic Language. The work is a musical summation of what he describes in its voluminous liner notes as "ideas based on what I believe was the method of reasoning of the informed thinkers of ancient Kemet." These "masters of geometry" were "able to think (and probably speak) directly in symbols" in "a civilization whose elect were able to directly manipulate vibration." To non-Kemetans, this might well read as esoteric balderdash, and it might easily be ignored if Language weren't loaded with dense, strikingly original arrangements and ensemble interplay.

We may not care to know, for example, that "The Twelve Powers" rhythmically "utilizes the proportion of the arithmetic mean (12:9 or 4:3, the angle of the sacred triangle) inside of a much longer cycle of 26:9." But there's a unique rhythmic pulse to the tune that evokes a feeling of alert deliberation, and Stefon Harris's vibraphone lines move with a nimbleness that correlates with Coleman's description of the composition as "representing the passage of blood through the twelve centers of the body."

You could argue that Language is as much M-Base as Kemet: The personal nature of the exploration is as important as the byzantine theory. In fact, Coleman's experience in the brassy, brawny big band of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and his stints with avant-garde orchestras led by Cecil Taylor and Sam Rivers, cohere perfectly with his collegiate musical studies and his historical obsessions on these thick, four-ply compositions. Layered like the cross-section of an archaeological dig, the album is rich with burbling rhythms from Cuban master percussionist Anga Diaz, and cut by shrieking operatic voices, rabble-rousing horns, and portentous strings that ascend like spirituals or hover like hummingbirds.

The results aren't cacophonous, either. In the liner notes, Coleman goes out of his way to credit the influence of conversations he had with jazz composer Henry Threadgill, a wizard of pace and texture who has passed on the secrets of elasticity--the dynamic melding of plinks and fanfares--the sort of instrumentation that sprawls and congeals. So even if you're not into Coleman's take on how to transcend the cycle of reincarnation, you can drop the laser on a cut like "Precession" and think, 'Yeah, this swings a little.' Like a rhinoceros in heat.

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