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Alto saxophonist and jazz-funk mystic Steve Coleman’s endless search for the secrets of the pyramids usually translates into a kind of sci-fi musical blaxploitation. He’s like the late sonic explorer Sun Ra that way—except Ra knew how to leaven his Space Age black nationalism with the humor of black vaudeville, whereas Coleman’s music always seems a little too serious for its own good. His works can be brainy at the expense of humaneness; and his frank displays of rhythmic wizardry leave little room for romance.
But on The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing, which documents Coleman’s current obsession with ancient non-Western music in a kind of fantasia funk, he shows that, for all his cerebral excess (in this case, material drawn from “astrological, astronomical, and metaphysical sources” of Kemet, or ancient Egypt), he’s an astute improviser. He’s got a sour, biting tone, but he often unravels his angular essays with the deftness of Charlie Parker. He seldom resorts to autopilot or cliche phrases in his playing, and since 1997, when he took his cut-loose funk philosophy global with two releases, The Sign and the Seal and Myths, Modes and Means—drawing on Afro-Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and African rhythms and scales—his music has grown more emotionally convincing; it’s more rhythmically complex but somehow also more tranquil. The circular patterns of bass, piano, and vibraphone, and the complicated backbeats on Sonic Language’s “The Twelve Powers” may be a bitch to snap your figures to—the composition “utilizes the proportion of the Arithmetic mean (12:9 or 4:3, the angle of the sacred triangle),” according to the textbook that comes with Sonic Language—but the polygrooves prove irresistibly hypnotic.
Regardless of Coleman’s far-reaching aspirations, he hasn’t forgotten his former stomping grounds of Chicago’s Hyde Park and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant—nor the music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Motown, P-Funk, and hiphop. The closing collage of droning voices and synth-washes on “Ausar (Reincarnation)” sounds as much informed by Wu-Tang Clan as by Henry Threadgill. He founded the rotating bass lines on ancient chants, but they interlock with the trap drums and congas in a way remarkably like the arrangements of James Brown’s early ’70s Soul Power.
The Sonic Language of Myth also introduces the newest edition of Five Elements, the group that forms the core of all Coleman’s ensembles, but the expanded instrumentation of strings, additional horns, voices, and vibraphone suggests Coleman’s orchestral outfit, the Council of Balance. Five Elements retain the tricky interlocking rhythms and forceful collective improvisation that defined Coleman’s hallmark work with the free-funk M-Base collective, but with the addition of strings and vocals, he has designed a wildly imaginative sonic terrain that gives the music a new majesty.
Sean Rickman continues the stream of M-Base drummers like Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Teri Lyne Carrington, and Gene Lake, who are able to underpin Coleman’s intersecting melodies with elaborate odd-metered funk rhythms. Rickman doesn’t wield as much muscle as Smith and Lake, but his swift, reversed backbeats and tight grooves propel the music with more firmness and delight. British bassist Anthony Tidd pairs with longtime member Regg Washington in creating dense bass lines that evoke the crushing gravity of a black hole; the roving bass figure on “The Twelve Powers” is perhaps Washington’s most sinister statement yet.
Tidd’s rumbling lines on “Precession,” “Heru (Redemption),” and “Ausar” aren’t so provocative, but they manage to capture the essence of M-Base’s menacing rhythms. Like Rickman, percussionist Miguel “Anga” Diaz made his first recorded M-Base appearance as a guest on 1998’s Genesis and the Opening of the Way. Although he doesn’t deliver any of the forceful solos of that record, his jagged polyrhythms nestle comfortably in the musical matrix. Vocalist and dancer Rosangela Silverstre, who appeared on The Sign and the Seal, doesn’t chip in with any of the spacey prose and bluesy musing that Cassandra Wilson brought to M-Base’s ’80s and early-’90s heyday, but her shrieking vocals on “Seth” are otherworldly.
The two most intriguing new voices on The Sonic Language of Myth come from special guests, pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Moran doesn’t lock himself too rigidly into the rhythm section, as Coleman’s previous pianists did; instead, he creeps through the schematic design with skittering vitality. Harris, too, explores both the outer and interior makeup of “The Twelve Powers” as he follows Moran’s lead.
As Coleman’s concepts widen, the clarity of his compositions sharpens. He’s always approached music with a pan-African aesthetic, and with these expansive orchestrations, he realizes his holistic ambitions to a fuller extent; his compositions are more picturesque given panoramic scope. The ascending strings on “Precession” evoke the imagery of the Big Bang theory; the closing drone of voices on “Ausar” would fit in wonderfully on the soundtracks to Existenz or The Matrix. The Sonic Language of Myth’s boldness may be difficult to cozy up to initially, but that’s because it’s stubborn about revealing too much of its enormous, complicated beauty at once. CP