Steve Lehman Octet: Mise en Abime

The alto saxophonist and composer returns with his large band and his “spectral harmony” approach, this time expanded upon with electronic effects.

Steve Lehman Octet

Mise en Abime

Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2014-06-24
UK Release Date: 2014-06-30

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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