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Steve Coleman and Five Elements’ The Mancy of Sound is arcane, abstruse, complex—and instantly mesmerizing. The record, according to its accompanying notes, is based on the cycles of nature and the world-spanning divination rites associated with them. But this isn’t the soundtrack to an anthropology text, or meditative new-age music. Rather, the alto saxophonist and the newest incarnation of his longtime band apply their trademark interlocking rhythms along with dense melodic counterpoint to summon something mysterious, spiritual, and ritualistic.
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That much is evident in the spellbinding opener, “Jan 18.” The groove from bassist Thomas Morgan, percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez, and drummers Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore is already mind-bogglingly intricate and seductively gentle. Then, the horn players (Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright) and vocalist Jen Shyu burst in with an otherworldly theme in which they weave around each other like an army of snakes. Shyu—singing mostly nonsense syllables in a clear, powerful voice—dominates here and throughout the album. But the point is collective improvisation, not individual performance, and so she articulates each sound as a horn would. On two “Formation” pieces, horns and vocals become equal counterpoints.
Better yet, on the “Earth–Idi” and “Water–Oyeku” sections of the majestic “Odú Ifá Suite”—the album’s four-track centerpiece, a musical representation of Ifá, the belief system of the Yoruba people—Shyu gets a vocal counterpoint in Perez, who, using guttural tones, chants verses in the Cuban Lucumi language while she moans and calls.
Counterpoint, obviously, is important on The Mancy of Sound, but rhythmic alchemy is its core. Even on the “Formation 1” and “Formation 2,” sax, trumpet, and trombone become rhythm instruments, weaving tapestries of beat and accent along with their dueling melodies. They do the same on “Odú Ifá,” creating layers of groove and melody even as the bass, drums, and percussion stay prominent. Groove takes priority, though, meaning the music sometimes sounds more chaotic than it actually is (“Fire–Ogbe”). It’s danceable, even while confounding attempts to find the pulse.
What’s most impressive about Coleman is that he pursues music’s most esoteric (read: nerdiest) complexities without sacrificing its outward allure. It’s as intriguing on the surface as in its depths. That’s one of the hardest tricks to pull off, but Coleman does it regularly—and on The Mancy of Sound he outdoes himself in both departments.