If you used the internet to time travel back to 2009, you’ll see that saxophonist Steve Lehman had the best-of lists cornered with his breakthrough octet release, Travail, Transformation and Flow. His use of what’s called “spectral harmony” was nothing new, as his guest post on Destination: Out gave props to Gerard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Michael Finnissy, Helmut Lachenmann, and Beat Furrer – but he certainly knew how to use it to great effect. Even when watching octet play live, it was pretty cool. In late 2010, I got to see firsthand how the five-piece horn section and the vibes would play sustain a single dissonant chord as individuals took turns shifting the volume on songs like “Echoes”. So the arrival of a trio album from Steve Lehman at first feels anti-climactic. But Dialect Fluorescent plays more of a part in turning a corner in Lehman’s career than initially meets the ears.
This isn’t to say that Lehman does for trios what he also did for octets just a few short years ago. An album like Dialect Fluorescent is one part bold for every two parts traditional. After all, Lehman’s mentor of choice, even after studying composition under George Lewis and Anthony Braxton, points back to Jackie McLean. Steve Lehman may just be a hard bop traditionalist at heart, a perspective that casts Dialect Fluorescent in a positive light. The album’s dangerous side does come out to play, though it’s still held in check. How much trouble can a sax, bass, and drums trio get into anyway?
It’s on Steve Lehman’s originals were he threatens to go deep, like having drummer Damion Reid play the oddest excuse for a drum beat behind “Allocentric” and “Foster Brothers”. Instead of a walking on a steady pulse, Lehman joins Reid in frighteningly executed fits and starts. Sometimes bassist Matt Brewer joins in on the syncopation, sometimes he’s anchoring down something else. “Fumba Rebel” not only plays with the elasticity of the rhythm section, but it runs like hell from the genre police. Is it funk or bebop? Is Brewer’s extended introduction going to give away any hints? Another odd thing about Lehman’s approach to all of this is that he gives himself such a short leash for the solos. With nine tracks totaling up to 45 minutes, it’s like he kept one eye on the clock, careful to make sure the sessions would all fit onto one piece of vinyl. He gives one track all to himself, though, serving as a three-minute introduction to “Allocentric”. Lehman’s playing is expressive but is more concerned with setting the mood than blowing away the Coltrane crowd.
Which brings me to the Dialect Fluorescent‘s covers. There are upright readings of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine”. Then there’s McLean’s “Mr. E”, containing more attitude and personality than the two previously mentioned standards. Then he takes on “Pure Imagination”, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s contribution to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. When Lehman grinds away the notes of the melody while Reid is tears apart his kit with pure bop furry, it almost sounds sarcastic. “You want a show tune? Here’s your precious Gene Wilder show tune!” It’s covers like that, not “Moment’s Notice”, that I look forward to.
Dialect Fluorescent is not the multi-dimensional, forward-thinking release that Travail, Transformation and Flow was, nor is it meant to be. It’s the sound of a young jazz maverick briefly revisiting his roots. What it lacks in spectral harmony it possesses in denying you the ability to dance. More time spent with Dialect Fluorescent brings its gutsier qualities to the surface, and that’s enough to tide us over until Lehman’s octet heads back into the studio.