Steve Lehman is a fresh voice on alto saxophone and as a composer. Like many of today’s young jazz musicians, he is planted beyond the controversies that used to dominate the conversation about jazz. Does his music incorporate the rhythmic urgency of rock and soul? Of course it does. Does it also include harmonic material “outside” of traditional modern jazz. Also yes. Does it sound brand new yet still incorporates a distinct link back to jazz history? Check and check. Lehman’s music is pleasing and challenging, grooving and asymmetrical, weird and soothing, outside and in.
In addition to being an alto saxophonist and composer, Lehman is currently a doctoral candidate in music composition at Columbia University—the cat publishes papers in academic journals about Jackie McLean and about the reaction of the French press to African-American music. Yet his music does not sound “academic” or sterile. Indeed, although this most recent recording has a highly analytic-sounding title, On Meaning, it is visceral and direct. Each tune is a vehicle for a tight and driving quintet that wastes no time in aimless noodling or experimental meander. In fact, the tone of On Meaning is no-nonsense and arrow-like. Lean and to-the-point.
The recording features Lehman’s quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, Tyshawn Sorey on drums, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, and bassist Drew Gress. In instrumentation and somewhat in approach, this group smacks of the great group that recorded Eric Dolphy’s 1964 Blue Note disc, Out to Lunch. Dolphy’s classic did not eschew conventional playing, but it incorporated the freedoms of the mid-1960s into a series of carefully composed rhythmic structures—some swinging, some herky-jerky, all polyrhythmic. Lehman’s new recording is arguably an Out to Lunch for the present. It has the smack and appeal of mainstream modern jazz, but it’s ultimately powered by the fire of the new.
Unlike many “avant-garde” jazz records, On Meaning is not inflated with long improvisations that continually breach harmonic convention. Today’s progressive jazz is flush with the new, but that has less to do with abstract-expressive soloing than with the composition of structures that break convention. Thus, Lehman’s quintet is concise and precise, playing stabbing tunes that use irregular repetition, then veering off into improvisations that trade in immediacy. This is the strain of jazz progression that harkens back to Anthony Braxton’s mathematical compositions of the 1970s, was picked up by Steve Coleman in the mid-1980s, and has been recently championed by his colleague on Pi Recordings, Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. It is cutting edge without being ugly,
Great credit goes to this rhythm section in making Lehman’s tunes feel effortless and swinging. On “Open Music”, things begin with just Sorey, Gress, and Dingman playing a skittering, off-balance introduction that invites a rondo of ascending lines from the horns. Sorey raps out this stuff with compelling discipline, but then he explodes into a sense of spontaneity moments later. Dingman (new to me) rings the proceedings in a flowing net of harmony—his phrasing is loose but jagged enough to mesh. On “Curse Fraction”, his solo over Gress’s funky bassline is quirky-conventional in the style of Bobby Hutcherson. As much as Lehman’s compositions dominate the record, the rhythm section makes them possible.
As a soloist, Lehman is a bantamweight puncher—quick and steely and right on the nose. His tone is on the hard-and-tight side of attractive, and he mostly plays in staccato flurries and darting runs. “Check This Out” finds him jabbing in a duel of sorts with trumpeter Finlayson, whose tone is gentler but whose note choice is equally hip and obscure. Both horn players have conservative sounds but adventurous ideas. “Great Plains of Algiers” is the only slow tune on the disc, and it trades more in atmospherics, but each player’s tone remains steady and clean even as they are arrayed in a series of partial dissonances that are like a cloud of sound.
If there is a weakness to On Meaning it is in the lack of more songs like “Great Plains” that are a contrast. This is a record of singular purpose, with Lehman’s tunes working over a few ideas in a bunch of different ways. Because the tunes are relatively short, they almost seem to be separate movements of a single work, shifting key or motif but rarely tempo. Heard as a suite, the relative lack of tempo change seems odd, maybe, but certainly deliberate.
It gets you to thinking again about Lehman’s Ph.D—about the way he likely thinks about his music and how it fits into the larger scheme of things. Can you call On Meaning a dissertation or at least a thesis? It is hardly a complete musical world view—it represents only one strain of Lehman’s approach to the art. But like a good argumentative essay, it has a plain focus and it piles up evidence to support the argument. Lehman’s thesis, it seems, is that a new and powerful jazz vocabulary can be found in the wide-ranging and highly inclusive amalgam of styles from bebop to “free” playing to contemporary classical to world music and microtonal playing. And, by embedding these elements in crafty compositions for a tight and elegant quintet, you can make terrific music.
I think we can start calling him DOCTOR Steve Lehman any time we like.