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Steve Lehman: Grooving Not Repeating

By Published: February 21, 2005

SL: I was teaching an undergraduate seminar once a week at the Conservatory in conjunction with the Fulbright Grant. Mainly we dealt with Anthony Braxton's music—looking at scores and discussing everything from his quartet music to his opera Trillium R. There were a lot of wonderful young musicians at the Conservatory when I was there. And a lot of musicians who were pretty heavily influenced by people like John Zorn and Tim Berne. So I used the seminar as a way to really examine the lineage that people like Zorn and Tim Berne are coming out of—whether it be the music of Anthony Braxton or Julius Hemphill.

AAJ: You are still teaching in Europe from what I gather.

SL: At the moment I'm not currently teaching in Europe. I will be performing and speaking in Paris at a conference devoted to Jackie McLean's music in February of this year, and also doing some workshops with Fieldwork in the beginning of May, but other than that I think most of my teaching will be done stateside for the time being.

AAJ: You grew up in Connecticut, right? When did you make the move to New York from your home?

SL: Well, I actually lived in Brooklyn until I was about 8 and then lived in Hartford, Connecticut and later Boston as a boarding student at Milton Academy. I first started performing in New York, somewhat sporadically, in 1997 after my freshman year at Wesleyan.

AAJ: What were your first musical experiences in New York and the concept and focus behind them?

SL: When I first began performing in New York, I was mainly working with musicians that I had met either at Wesleyan or the Hartt School of music. I also met some musicians who were studying at the New School including an old friend and a wonderful drummer named Tomas Fujiwara. At that point, 1997-1999, I was more or less playing anywhere I could, whether it be the Knitting Factory or a local restaurant. I did a lot of really wonderful duo concerts with Kevin O'Neil , who is an amazing guitarist and composer. A lot of gigs with people like Tomas Fujiwara, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tony Leone and also Warren Byrd, an incredible Hartford-based pianist. A lot of different types of music- standards, open pieces, chamber music.

AAJ: At that time, what were the key sideman-type gigs you worked on?

SL: In that period, I wasn't really doing a lot of sideman work. Anthony Braxton asked me to join his Ghost Trance ensemble in 1999. That was incredibly meaningful to me, to know that he thought enough of my music to take me to Europe and later to invite me to be a part of the Andrew Hill project he recorded for CIMP . I did some work and recorded with Kevin Norton's ensemble which I really enjoyed. Separate from that I worked with Kevin O'Neil very regularly and also did a couple of concerts with Eddie Henderson which was also very special for me.

Much more recently, people like Ralph Alessi , Michele Rosewoman and Dave Burrell have asked me to perform their music, which has been great. I've done a bunch of work with Oliver Lake's Big Band which is always an honor, and have also begun doing some things with Meshell Ndegeocello, which has been really exciting. And then I'm also involved in a couple of projects led by musicians much closer to my own age like Chris Dingman and Jonathan Finlayson.

AAJ: I think it's fair to say that this was the year you burst onto the scene. That said, you released two discs of very different music this year; basically, a free-jazz record Interface and another record of your compositions for quintet, Artificial Light. That made it kind of easy for the jazz establishment to latch onto the idea of the "two Steve Lehman's." I would think that's not probably how you planned things but maybe it is. My assumption is that you probably will not continue down the two-path road and we will see more of a crossover, an assumption that I'm sure scratches the surface of what you're thinking.

SL: I didn't originally plan for the two albums to come out at the same time, but I ended up being happy that it worked out that way. The response to both albums has been overwhelmingly positive which I'm very grateful for. The fact that one album is very different from the other seems to have prevented the jazz press from making any categorical statements about my work. The next album I do will in some ways be a departure from both Artificial Light and Interface. I'm still hoping to release an album of my recent chamber music. I think the real challenge for me in the next 5 to 10 years will be to develop my music in a way that will allow me to focus on long-term compositional and instrumental concerns while keeping my music in constant evolution. In other words, I've always been very inspired by a fairly wide variety of musical settings, but my hope is that the evolution in my work will be generated primarily by the music itself as opposed to a constant change in musical context or perceived genre.

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