There's much about Steve Lehman's Travail, Transformation, and Flow that the packaging won't tell you. It's an interesting statement, in fact, on how the music is being projected into the world that the rather heady origins of this wholly organic music aren't disclosed alongside the record. Lehman's a smart guy and his dual tutelage under Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean continues to be evident in his work. Like his teachers, Lehman strives to create a music that is as listenable as it is intellectual. But intellectualism and high concept are in some circles seen as antithetical to jazz: it's not worth a thing if it does more than swing. So perhaps it's prudent of Lehman to deliver the exceptional, even swinging music he composed for his octet without concept. The multi- linear ensemble (five horns, vibes, bass and drums) is most often working two or three different angles, with steady, sometimes achingly slow pulses set by the rhythm section while the phalanx of horns intertwine.
The music is in no small part about control. But it's also (and here's the secret, smartypants part) about an unusual system of harmonic relationships. For much of the last decade, Lehman has been studying spectral harmony, which involves a complex mapping of the physical properties of sound. It's not just the dominant or 'intended' pitch of a musical note that is given consideration, but the microtones that rise in the attack and decay, the wavering of the sound wave. Digital analysis of those networks of properties reveals new harmonic structures that Lehman uses as compositional frameworks. It's fascinating work that runs the risk of suggesting sterility, which this music has none. In the case of Travail, Transformation, and Flow, the ends aren't reliant upon the means.
As a player, Lehman is understated and considered on the alto sax, which is key to the success of his guest appearance with Michel Edelin's trio on Kuntu. He's only on three of the ten cuts, but the pairing of his restrained, articulate sax and Edelin's slighter but no less confident flute sounds great. Edelin is among the rare class of flutists for whom the instrument isn't a second fiddle and his focus is more than evident as he winds through the challenges put forth by the unusually divergent rhythm section of bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch (both of Steve Lacy fame). The delicate intricacies the trio creates are fairly remarkable and Lehman's ability to winnow his way in is fascinatingor just a pleasure, if you don't want to think too much about it.
Tracks and Personnel
Travail, Transformation, and Flow
Tracks: Echoes; Rudreshm; As Things Change (I Remain the Same); Dub; Alloy; Waves; No Neighborhood Rough Enough; Living in the World Today (GZA Transcription)
Personnel: Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Mark Shim: tenor saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Tim Albright: trombone; Chris Dingman: vibraphone; Jose Davila: tuba; Drew Gress: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums
Tracks: Les hirondelles; 2-3-4-5; Ultravitre; Gout bulgare; Tout simplement; Daolo; Deca ut; Bag's mood; Lesson Choir; Ruby my Dear
Personnel: Michel Edelin: flute, alto flute, bass flute; Jean-Jacques Avenel: double bass; John Betsch: drums; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone