There is a possibility, I think, of Steve Coleman's music being redefined by the voice of Jen Shyu. Whenever it is present it dominates, an ear magnet even when used as background. That Shyu is present on all tracks in this and the previous two Five Elements sets is in itself remarkable, unprecedented for any other human voice Coleman has used before: Cassandra Wilson, Rosangela Silvestre, Malik Mezzadri and all the other vocalists previously featured have had their slots on occasional songs, then gone away. Taking Shyu away from this recording would be like taking Jagger out of Jumping Jack Flash, and the same could be said for the previous two Five Elements releases.
It's too early to say, however, what will be the impact on Coleman's music long term. So far he's getting away with it, The Mancy Of Sound being yet another outstanding collection of music and creativity, with some familiar themes but also some new departures.
It kicks off with Jan 18, a vigorous piece featuring some characteristic comping, with a muscular undertow of percussion and some fine lead work by Coleman, Shyu and Finlayson, with Shyu scattering words as if in a Dada poem. Formation 1 loses the percussion and allows brass and voice to mingle and circle each other, seemingly hunting for a focus.
Tracks 3 to 7 constitute the four-part Odú Ifá suite, based upon an idea, according to Coleman, from Cassandra Wilson and based upon the four (not Five!) elements, Fire, Earth, Air, Water. Fire sees the return of the percussion and a very clear musical vector, gathering pace and with Albright's trombone occasionally to the fore, and again Shyu's ear magnet. Fire is slower, with a springier rhythm and what appears to be a sampled male reminiscent of The Sign And The Seal. The pace once more accelerates for Air, but slows for Water, which has a pensive feel. Shyu's voice again dominates where present, and the sampled voice also returns, apparently chastising us, although Shyu still has the last word.
Continuing the Jan Formation Suite Formation Jan symmetry, Formation 2, like 1, is another Shyu-dominated conversation between the leads, and Noctiluca (Jan 11) returns the percussion, which gets a very nice slot of its own around the middle, the tempo ebbs and flows, Shyu once more on the Dada poem and the drums raging in the background, before everything comes in gently to land, with Shyu once more getting the last word.
So where now? With Coleman's touring and workshop bands still featuring Shyu I guess she'll continue to be a feature, but earlier this year he told me that he's been working on big band compositions, though that was as far as he would go, so whether it will be a Council Of Balance-style set I'm not sure, nor even whether it will be recorded. I hope it will.