Steve Lehman Octet: Travail, Transformation, and Flow

A composer and alto saxophonist experiments with "spectral harmony" in jazz -- a technical matter that produces a non-technical result known as "great music".

Steve Lehman Octet

Travail, Transformation, and Flow

Artist website:
Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2009-06-09
UK Release Date: Import

There are things going on here.

Steve Lehman's new recording, Travail, Transformation, and Flow shimmers differently than most jazz recordings. It pulses like certain minimalist classical music, and it presents harmonies that -- while perfectly "consonant" and far from grating -- are illuminated in unique ways. Plus, there is a whole lot of groove and a tub-load of concise, swinging soloing.

The explanation for the unique shimmer is, apparently, something called "spectral harmony", which Lehman (a doctoral candidate in music at Columbia University) has been studying for years. Here's what it means: Lehman's arrangements of notes and instruments have been carefully determined by the attack, decay and harmonic overtones of the instruments he is employing. Technical, huh?

But if you listen to the short tune "Dub", you'll get it. While Drew Gress and Tyshawn Sorey groove on bass and drums, Lehman has the vibes, trumpet, tuba and other instruments strike chords in ways that allow the vibrations of the instruments to pile up on each other like particularly gorgeous frequencies of sunlight. He crafts these chords, these moments when more than one instrument play different notes simultaneously, such that the overtones of the instruments interact in unique and beautiful ways. It sounds like technical mumbo-jumbo, but the effect is luminescent.

The good news is that Travail, Transformation, and Flow is more than some kind of sonic experiment. It also provides generous dollops of rhythmic energy and the kinds of concise, tasty improvised solos that jazz fans should love. The octet featured here provides plenteous sonic opportunities, sure, but also a bevy of great improvisers. Lehman's quintet is the core, with Sorey and Gress in the rhythm section, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and Chris Dingman on vibraphone. Additional coloring and strong soloing come from Mark Shim on tenor saxophone, Tim Albright on trombone, and Jose Davila on tuba. Lehman plays also sax with acid tone and direct attack and swirling imagination.

So there is "As Things Change (I Remain the Same)", where the rhythm arrangement has the halting, herky-jerky feeling of hip hop but the horns are arranged using the spectral rules such that it all feels celestial. But the first solo is Mark Shim's explosive tenor, jabbing and hopping over a bass/tuba line that is as electric as any synthesizer. Shim doesn't seem academic or spectral. He seems to be elated to be playing in such a vigorous setting.

"Alloy" is not one the spectral compositions, but it dodges and jousts with incredible punch. Dingman's vibes set up harmonies that ring in careful sync with the rat-a-tat playing of Sorey, and the soloists are able to zoom over this music with entertaining grace -- like the metal balls in a Pachinko machine, zigging and zagging. It's a thrilling song, particularly at the end when the rhythm section suddenly cuts out and Lehman and Finlayson play an improvised duet in counterpoint that returns to the written theme.

Other tunes sound a bit less like "jazz" while still allowing for improvisation. The opener, "Echoes", uses pulsing repetitions and lurches in the time signatures of repeated notes to evoke the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Over these shirts and shimmers, Lehman carves a jagged improvisation that comes off like neon splashed on top of pastels. "Waves" begins with Sorey playing a kind of timpani part, then the band entering with long tones that creak and moan on top of each other -- the kind of thing that would be more properly considered "new music" than jazz, except that the whole thing develops a subtle rhythmic groove that suggests the pliancy of swing. Finlayson' solo plays with timbre as much as melody, very briefly, and Lehman assays a short declamatory statement on alto. Fascinating.

The final track, a cover of "Living in the World Today" by GZA/Genius of the Wu Tang Clan, makes the hip hop feeling more explicit. Lehman has written some careful ensemble passages that frame what becomes, eventually, a stirring collective improvisation. Which about sums up the ambition of this project. Experimental compositional ideas from classical music are used to inspire improvisation (both jazz soloing and improvising from beyond the idiom) and are freely blended with complex forms of pop/hip hop rhythm.

Does it all work? Not a single track here is boring, and every solo is brief and riveting. Though there are a few techniques being used here, not just the spectral harmonies, it does sound like "Rudreshm" (named for the sympathetic alto player, Mr. Mahanthappa, I presume) and "Alloy" have the same basic feeling. In a couple of other places this music, which does not present memorable melody as a strength, courts a certain sameness of tone or effect.

But, as with Lehman's last recording, this narrow focus seems part of the plan. He is breaking new ground, making a new argument about the music, if you will. I think we should excuse some emphasis or repetition in supporting his thesis. Steve Lehman is thinking about jazz in a new way. Listening is advised -- you may be convinced.

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