Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is a musical omnivore. He has been leading an octet that experiments with a mixture of improvisation and spectral harmony (which uses microtones and unusual tunings and intervals to stunning compositional effect), fronting a band that incorporates hip-hop (Sélébéyone), and composing contemporary classical music. Perhaps his trio with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid is on the more traditional side—more a classic “jazz” format, and one that on its more recent recording takes on tunes by jazz pianist Kenny Kirkland, jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and jazz drummer Jeff Watts.
But it’s not that simple. This is, after all, Steve Lehman.
First, the trio is supplemented on The People I Love in a critical way by pianist Craig Taborn, another omnivore who performs in many styles and modes. Second, Lehman remains at core a musician who is interested in composition and form as they intersect with sound. His musical constructions are rarely a melody, set of chords, time signature, and feel. “qPlay” uses Taborn’s piano as an open chamber, the strings all reverberating in chiming overtones, recorded and mixed to place the echoing strings sounds on equal footing with Reid’s madly syncopated snare and cymbals.
The saxophone melody is slower and searching, with Brewer’s bass playing funky repeated-note figures interrupted by long rests. The effect is orchestral and sonically arresting, with each instrument playing a prescribed, composed part that adds up to a whole—which is not to say that there isn’t improvising. But it is the new kind, one based less on jazz scales or harmony than on the essential idea of the composition.
The opening “Prelude” is a duet for Taborn and Lehman, but it uses elements of the composer’s microtonal strategies from the octet. Lehman has become skilled at playing notes that are bent away from being truly on pitch by small and specific intervals. He deploys these notes against particular, open harmonies on the piano, creating a keening effect—like the blues but not the blues at all, a bending of your ear that creates and resolves the tension.
This short piece flows into the full quartet playing “Ih Calam & Ynnus”. The words and names meant to be read backward, I believe), which also uses chimed, open intervals by Taborn against which Lehman plays a melody that includes some subtly bent notes. This time, however, he has Reid playing a skittering double-time on the drums that generates incredible excitement and Brewer sitting on throbbing bottom notes that are all within a tiny range. The saxophone line works in a manner we are used to hearing from Lehman: fast, boppish runs that might be thought of as Charlie Parker 3.0. His playing is syncopated and fleet but using either odd intervals that recall Eric Dolphy or Julius Hemphill and using a stuttering rhythmic flow that hints at hip-hop more than swing.
On the tunes that sound a bit more “conventional”, these modern elements are still prominent. “Curse Fraction” features a melodic motif for alto and bass in octaves that uses that stuttering rhythmic feel, for example. Lehman’s main melody is very static, with repeated notes or notes in a small range, again bent just a bit. Taborn’s solo is relaxed but rippling with melody, even as he keeps the chords in his left hand very prescribed and simple. Then, as the saxophone re-enters, the two melodic approaches rub off on and mirror each other.
The Kenny Kirkland tune “Chance” is, naturally, more traditionally blues-based. Still, even here, Lehman finds the spots in the composition where he can create a bit more tension through specific chord voicings for Taborn that reverberate off the saxophone melody. The performances here by Taborn—in a startling but subtle piano solo that finds new harmonic avenues within a traditional format—and Reid, playing brushes to lovely effect, are standouts.
Lehman runs together his own harmonically static “Echoes” with “The Impaler” by Jeff “Tain” Watts. The contrast works well, with the first piece sounding like a prelude leading into the more varied composition. This is a pattern that The People I Love uses in other places. “Prelude”, “Interlude”, and “Postlude” are all short duets that seem to have been freely improvised by Lehman and Taborn, serving as an introduction or pairing for another, longer performance. Each serves as a kind of sonic calm.
“Interlude” uses a short set of throbbing alto tones, repeated and then bent, to get us ready for the jabbing trio track composed by Rosenwinkel, with Reid and Lehman like two dancers in a funky tango or two light-heavyweight boxers in the ring. The “Postlude” is the most playful of the duets—each of the two featured players leaping across large intervals until the dance disappears.
For all the formal innovations on display here, the performance that most captivates is one that is centered and has the most “swing”. “Beyond All Limits” is not ironically named, just grooving as all get out. Brewer opens with a virtuosic bass solo, and then he and Reid generate a propulsive but subtle Latin-tinged polyrhythm. Lehman’s melody statement over that groove is jagged and exciting, but also still tonal, dealing with the blues as a source. It highlights the way that the leader’s playing can be light and lithe, in the manner of Paul Desmond or Lee Konitz, as well as hard-edged.
Taborn follows this with his most feather-light playing of the session. The band then jams the form in the most varied way on this date: they use what seem to be improvised stop-times, a surge in energy, collective improvising and trading of phrasing, as well as a truly climactic ending.
The “jazz” scene today isn’t marked by the kinds of arguments or silly generational divisions that once sold magazines like Downbeat—the boppers versus the “moldy figs”, Miles Davis putting down Ornette and the free players, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch grousing about funk-jazz, that kind of thing. But there does seem to be divisions between players who only work in the pre-1960 mainstream mode, the players who are almost entirely devoted to free improvisation, and the players who are working on genre-defying mixtures and complex New Jazz forms.
Steve Lehman, with this band, and particularly with “Beyond All Limits”, steers a middle ground between a New Jazz vanguard and the verities of small band mainstream playing. Of course, the different modes can coexist, Lehman suggests. And The People I Love proves, in spots, that each may be better off when not divorced from the other.