Usually when one of my curmudgeonly friends tells me there’s nothing new in jazz, I snap back what about Cassandra Wilson? She’s one of many good choices; there’s also Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, and many original voices who have taken what came before them and distilled it into something entirely original. Lately, I’m inclined to include Steve Lehman in that group. Here’s my musings on his latest. http://on.wsj.com/V5HAzF
The road to renown in the jazz world typically goes through the bandstand: Impressions made playing at jam sessions often result in sideman gigs, which can open opportunities to lead a band. Saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman took a different path.
Mr. Lehman studied at the Hartt School of Music, earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Wesleyan University and a doctorate from Columbia; he was recently named a recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Award. Being in academia enabled him to work with two of his biggest influences, the saxophonists and composers Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton. “I was looking for the set-up that would afford me the maximum amount of time to focus on music,” Mr. Lehman said in a telephone interview earlier this month. The Wesleyan and Columbia graduate programs are fully funded, with fellowships to help defray living expenses. The freedom from having to earn a living allowed Mr. Lehman, 35, to record impressive albums in trio and quintet settings, and he has created an octet that is producing some of the most exciting music in jazz today. That group’s debut recording, “Travail, Transformation and Flow” (Pi Recordings, 2009), made the “best of” lists of more than 30 publications; its second album, “Mise en Abîme” (Pi Recordings), was released last week.
The octet has a mesmerizing sound. Shimmering harmonies are densely layered, but in a way that seems transparent. There is a three-dimensionality to it that makes it seem as if there are many different lines being played at once, yet the music is surprisingly coherent. The rhythms are fluid and catchy.
The group’s unique sound is due in part to its unusual instrumentation. The members include tenor-saxophonist Mark Shim, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, tubaist Jose Davila, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and Mr. Lehman on alto saxophone and laptop. In forming the group and sculpting its sound, Mr. Lehman acknowledges the influence of trombonist Grachan Moncur III’s 1963 recording “Evolution” (Blue Note). Mr. Davila’s playing, which has both frontline and rhythm duties, recalls the music of Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, another group that combined unique rhythms and innovative harmonies.
“Mise en Abîme” is a taut powerhouse that says a great deal in just under 40 minutes. The writing on this album is more complex than its predecessor’s. The harmonies are even more layered and the rhythms looser, yet the music is just as accessible and is played with a unique urgency. It often sounds as if all eight musicians are playing at once, each with an easily distinguishable line.
Remarkably, even though everyone in the band is in high demand, both octet recordings feature the same lineup. “I think everyone in the octet has a fair amount of overlapping musical interests with my own,” Mr. Lehman said, explaining how he managed to keep the roster intact. But he also attributes his good fortune to the group-leadership skills he learned from Mr. McLean, who taught him that choosing his collaborators is also an act of composition. “I give everyone a great deal of agency to shape the music; hopefully that fosters a creative environment that everyone goes out of their way to make time for.”
“Mise en Abîme” features three tracks that address the work of keyboardist Bud Powell, who was a mentor to Mr. McLean. “I think Powell is someone who looms large for everyone, both as a composer and as a conceptualist,” Mr. Lehman said. “It’s really astonishing what he was able to accomplish and how early he was able to do it. Compositions like ‘Glass Enclosure’ and ‘Tempus Fugit’ were decades and decades ahead of their time. And his introduction to ‘Autumn in New York’ is something that sounds ultracontemporary even today.”
Mr. Lehman’s innovative compositions are informed by spectral-music theory, an approach to harmony built around timbres rather than the usual tonal-atonal relationship. “I first turned on to spectral music around 1999 or 2000,” Mr. Lehman said. “I was immediately struck by the otherworldly sound of the music and the ways that Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, in particular, work with harmony,” said Mr. Lehman, explaining that it “isn’t about being in tune or out of tune.”
Much of the literature on spectral music is in French. Although Mr. Lehman grew up in New York and lives in Hoboken, N.J., he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in France in 2002 and he is fluent in the language. He felt he had a special entrée into that world and began incorporating spectral ideas into his music.
Mr. Lehman continues to develop his sideman career. He said that just in the past seven months he has either recorded or performed with Jason Moran, HPrizm from Antipop Consortium, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith. He said his time in academia and the opportunity it afforded him to develop a unique style reinforced his ties to his core community of musicians and mentors. “A lot of the sideman work I’ve done has come as a result of me being able to articulate a personal point of view through my ensembles and my music and not so much as a result of ‘being on the scene.'”
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.