In January of 1996, Steve Coleman took his 11-piece Mystic Rhythm Society to Cuba to explore the music and culture of various traditions that have their origins in West Africa. Coleman and his band hooked up with AfroCuba de Matanzas, a Cuban group of percussionists, dancers, and singers, and after a week and a half of rehearsals, performed together at the Havana Jazz Festival. The Sign and the Seal is the studio-recorded result of this experimental collaboration. It is an interesting fusion. When it works, it really works, as on "The Seal (Elekoto for Agayu)." The mixture of Afro-Cuban percussion, Ornette Coleman-derived jazz blowing, and Nigerian singing blends into a coherent whole. Even the rap by Kokayi, the Mystic Rhythm Society's resident lyricist, doesn't seem anachronistic or otherwise out of place. There are moments where the combination feels less like gin and tonic and more like oil and water, but they are few and far between. The individual members of the Mystic Rhythm Society do their best to blend in with the other musicians, and it is rare when one instrument dominates the mix. When one does, however, as in Gene Lake's ferocious drum solo on "The Diurnal Lord (for Agayu)," the listener is not disappointed. There are some moments of true sublimity on The Sign and the Seal, when the two bands come together and fall apart like an Ives symphony, both demanding the attention of the listener and yet somehow at the same time neither predominating, the friction between the musicians creating a sort of deconstructed null space in which order is somehow, paradoxically, found. Fans of traditional jazz, and even those aficionados of cross-genre hybrids such as those found on Ry Cooder/V.M. Bhatt's A Meeting by the River or Jan Garbarek/the Hilliard Ensemble's Officium, may want to steer clear of this record. Fans of Coleman (either Steve or Ornette), will certainly find this an interesting listen.
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AllMusic Review by Daniel Gioffre