Steve Lehman Quintet: On Meaning
This release by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman places him in the vanguard of great new composer/performers. Not only does his music explore an idiosyncratic array of complex harmonic and rhythmic ideas, but Lehman and his remarkable band are capable of expanding, contracting, accelerating and decelerating the proceedings in real time, as the music unfolds.
On Meaning extends the concepts presented on Artificial Light (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004), Lehman's last quintet project, with vibraphonist Chris Dingman and bassist Drew Gress in return appearances. Two key substitutions have occurred, with Tyshawn Sorey filing the drum chair in place of Eric McPherson and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson replacing tenorist Mark Shim.
Lehman's music uses loop-like structures on top of and against other textures and devices to thrilling effect. For "Analog Moment, different asymmetric groupings of repeated notes by trumpet and saxophone counterweave through repeated notes on vibraphone, against a warm bass pulse and fluttering drum'n'bass, to create a naturally undulating matrix.
This matrix can stand alone, serving as a song form, or as a platform for soloists to spring off, blowing choruses of indeterminate length, ending when it feels right, not when a certain number of barlines passes. Lehman himself is a devastating soloist, already futurizing the staccato angularity and slashing modernity of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Each critical man can split off, his function replaced, or not, by another at what sounds like a whim. A four minute song flies by like stained glass windows on a passing train, each moment having been somehow different, yet part of a unified whole.
Dingman and Sorey are a colossal percussion team, and forged together with Gress, a rhythm section capable of freakish cohesion, even while playing parts designed to impart disorder, as on the initial bars of "Open Music.
"Curse Fraction is the most conventionally pretty track, driven gently by Sorey's precise drum'n'bass evocations, accented early by a brief but arching solo from Finlayson that later becomes serpentine with Lehman's keening angularity. What starts in simple pastels soars swiftly through several artistic epochs into pointillism. Dingman (a rather onomatopoeic eponym for a vibraphonist), is the ultimate foil for Lehman's and Finlayson's angular, probing, gymnastic playing by virtue of his luxuriant sound.
Hearing what Dingman contributes here merely in terms of atmosphere and timbre, let alone his vast other abilities, renders conceiving the sound of a pianist in this band downright harsh. His solo on "Curse Fraction immediately transfers the horns' energy to light, emphasizing the space around each of his notes, even as they sustain and collapse on each other. Later, he recontextualixes the horns with sunburst arpeggiations. Currently in residence at the Monk Institute, this recording marks Dingman as jazz vibraphonist-of-the-moment.
The shapeshifting unison lines of "Haiku D'Etat Transcription disregard barlines yet emulate biorhythms. In that sense these compositions often seem alive, especially as they naturally slow and speed. This is exemplified here at the 5 minute mark, as Lehman and company exert control over rate, foreground, background and tempo, from frenetic to languid, presaging Gress' finest excursion of the outing.
"Check This Out is the session's mightiest groove, exemplifying Lehman's mantra of "grooving not repeating. Gress may repeat this year's baddest bass ostinato from beginning to end, but what the band weaves over it grooves while somehow being ephemeral. Sorey begins Stubblefield-tight, moving through a spectrum of jazz-rock and electronic beats, never heavy-handed and reacting to everyone's movements and challenges as can only a drummer who's lucid with every measure of the music.
The gorgeous "Great Plains Of Algiers," using sustain and timbre as compositional touchstones, emphasizes the beauty found in the decay of long tones from vibes, cymbals, toms and alto combined in a way that is haunting, yet therapeutic. This composition stands apart from the rest, but seems a glimpse at a whole other direction the ensemble could travel.
Lehman's recordings don't clock in at the 45-minute mark because of a lack of ideasthey do so because of a concentration of them. Even Lehman's publishing is dubbed Density Music. One of many factors working in his favor is that listeners will oscillate between assimilating these ideas as simple or complex before relinquishing to their consumptive groove. Their genesis, however convoluted, is irrelevantit's their efficacy in bridging the connection between the mind and soul that will perpetuate the deserved buzz around Lehman.
Tracks: Analog Moment; Open Music; Haiku D'Etat Transcription; Curse Fraction; Check This Out; On Meaning; Great Plains Of Algiers; Process.
Personnel: Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Drew Gress: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Chris Dingman: vibraphone.