In 2009, the saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman gave jazz fans a thrill by making a recording that had the legitimate zing of new. That, sad to say, is pretty rare in this music, where so many of the possibilities of the form seem to have already been explored. Even the wildest, “free-est” jazz can seem samey-same these days — honking and squealing and playing outside of tonality? How 1965.
Travail, Transformation, and Flow featured a compositional technique called “spectral harmony” that placed the instruments in Lehman’s talented octet into glowing, reverberating harmonic proximity. The songs shimmered with an inner light that sounded utterly fresh. The leader’s alto sax, Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet, the trombone of Tim Albright, Mark Shim on tenor sax, and Jose Davila’s tuba all return for a second outing, and they are again placed in fascinating juxtaposition, with each instrument’s characteristic attack and sonority generating a pulsating ensemble sound. Drew Gress and Tyshawn Sorey are a rhythm section that moves in seven directions at once — a kind of funky, polyrhythmic tap dancing for bass and drums that stutters and jabs and skitters brilliantly. Finally, the other critical element of the octet’s sound is Chris Dingman’s vibraphone, this time tricked out with some sort of different tuning that incorporates ghostly quarter tones.
The new record, Mise en Abime — literally, “placed into abyss” in French, but usually used in critical theory to describe the kind of iterative/recursive “story within a story” or “dream within a dream” effects that you might associate with Inception or The Grand Budapest Hotel — delivers more slightly strange, off-kilter funk, filled with a creamy center of spectral harmony and spikey improvising. It is super-intriguing music but also music that has a nervous edge. On some — many? — of these songs, the prevailing emotion is . . . tension. And this makes for excitement that is palpable even if the music doesn’t cover a huge range of interest.
The biggest difference this time around is the sound of Dingman’s vibes. Previously, the vibes brought the band part of its beautiful gleam. Now, Lehman has outfitted Dingman with an instrument capable of playing quarter-tone intervals, which makes the vibes here more peculiar, more thorny, more weirdly synchronized with the action around the them. On many songs, the vibes are ghost inside this band’s machine — a presence that keeps you unsettled.
The other difference is the addition of some electronic effects to some songs. “Beyond All Limits”, for example, opens with a rolling groove from bass and drums that is washed over by an echoing sweep of synth-sound that is hard to pin down to any instrument. Shim’s tenor takes off on a solo, but the electronic wash returns in little open spots in the improvising and then again in certain places around the written line for the horn ensemble. Davila is punching out a funky tuba line, the soloists jabber, Dingman comps on vibes, but that electronic sound is an independent element of the group. I’m not sure exactly what triggers it or how it was made, but — like the spectral harmony elements of the recording — it expands our sense of what a jazz recordings can sound like.
Much of the music on Mise en Abime will remind jazz fans of the “MBASE” music made by Steve Coleman and his compatriots twenty-some years ago. There is a feeling here that the music is both carefully structured and living outside of traditional jazz harmonies. It’s not “free” in the way that ‘Trane and Ayler were, but the music is intricately placed beyond any Tin Pan Alley or even bebop harmonic system that defines most of the jazz out there. The melodies lurch and poke, they shake and skitter, using odd intervals and changing directions. Rhythmic structures are far from straight-forward, with little 4/4 time that swings in the usual sense.
Then, on tunes like “Segreated and Sequential” and “13 Colors” (the opening pair of tracks), you hear the pulsating, wave-upon-wave sound of the spectral harmony technique, along with the the strange dissonances of Dingman’s altered vibraphone. Then add the way that Lehman and his guys tend to improvise in this space: like they are frantically searching for a note that might not be anywhere in the neighborhood. You will either find the material the only original thing going on in jazz today . . . or it might make you feel like you have an itch you just can’t scratch.
For me, this band is delicious, intriguing, but also one that I feel like I’d rather hear in person. Studio recordings can seem circumscribed, sterile, careful — and the shimmering and moody results of these arrangement would surely astonish more in person. I’d like to hear the soloists cut loose with more abandon. I’d like to see it all happen so that I could reconcile the effects with the people playing in front of me.
“Chimera/Luchini” creates the complete range of what this band is capable of right now. Gress and Sorey are brilliant as a rhythm section: playful and loose, funky and fascinating as the song opens. Dingman plays a riveting and utterly original vibes solo that seems to be triggering a range of disorienting electronic colors that shift the tonality of the piece into an ambiguous space. Horns come in beneath it all as part of this spooky atmosphere, but Sorey’s drum solo eventually leads to a solo by Lehman that is built over Davila punching the bottom and them a stabbing set of horn parts that bring your blood to a staccato boil. Fun!
Steve Lehman and his band are making something fresh and now something that is evolving, exploring, daring. Jazz is of the age where it needs tradition, yes, but it so plainly HAS tradition. Jazz also needs vanguard, always. Here’s one that you could never have imagined — and that’s what makes it the vanguard we need.