Michael Coleman’s more famous indie rock trio, Beep!, provides a helpful primer and reference point for anyone trying to understand this one. In many ways, Arts & Sciences falls in the same aesthetic vein, albeit with jazzier instrumentation (woodwinds, percussion, keys instead of piano-bass-drums), and a freer format — he characterizes the outfit as modern jazz, without any rock pretensions. Monstrously talented tenor saxophonist Matt Nelson and altoist Jacob Zimmerman handle most of the heads, which are in most cases more challenging, and more harmonically abstract, than any of Coleman’s prior releases. Even a purposefully quirky tune like “Those Lepers,” which starts off brash but gets all woozy and viscous in the middle, demands several listens before you can digest it.
With all that said, Coleman’s dorky sense of humor is fully intact. The first tune on this album, a protracted, slow lead-in that opens on a two-minute crescendo (effected via Nelson’s guttural horn growl and Jordan Glenn’s pitter-patter percussion), bears the charmingly sheepish title “People Really Like Me” (which is hard to write without adding an emoticon at the end). Among the other tracks are “Baby Boner” — a groany but incongruously gorgeous ballad about, well, a boner, apparently — and the more richly orchestrated “Scientology,” which features four additional musicians: bass clarinetist Aram Shelton, trumpeter Theo Padouvas, trombonist Rob Ewing, and guitarist Andrew Conklin. All jokes aside, it’s pretty hard stuff, altogether more complicated and a little less accessible than Beep! But the rewards are commensurate.