Decoding the music of saxophonist Steve Lehman has become a diversion for many a jazz listener (and critic). Sometimes composed with the help of programming software, his harmonies are meshed with mercurial rhythms. When played by his octet, his music gives the impression that it requires a scorecard to keep tabs on its perplexing complexities.
Then, come to think about it, a frustrated Cab Calloway
in the 1940s described Dizzy Gillespie
's invention bebop as "Chinese music." While "Chinese music" might not be the preferred nomenclature this century, Lehman's music (like bebop), translates well with repeated exposure and when played in a context of traditional jazz covers, three of which are heard on Dialect Fluorescent
Lehman's approach is an amalgamation of his studies with hard-bop master Jackie McLean
and his apprenticeship with jazz icon Anthony Braxton
. His work with these saxophonists reveals a brainy and brawny sound. Heard here in trio with drummer Damion Reid
(whose credits include pianist Robert Glasper
, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa
) and bassist Matt Brewer (saxophonist Greg Osby
, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba
), Lehman's approach is unveiled as a sort of thinking man's hip-hop. That is, if Philip Glass
The covers here are the Rosetta stone. John Coltrane
's "Moment's Notice" begins as an M-Base workout that doesn't reveal the melody until the end, but drops hints from the start. Like a very familiar line from a favorite movie heard out of context, the puzzle of Lehman's approach begins to coagulate. The group approaches "Jeannine" by Duke Pearson
in a straightforward manner, with Brewer's walking bass and Reid's brushwork leading into the melody that Lehman faithfully describes before dismantling it into his own language. Same for McLean's "Mr. E," a swift piece of hard bop.
The five Lehman originals then come into full light. Electronic informs but does not define his ultramodern approach. It is also assembled from modern classical and hip-hop without being classified as such. And no, it is not Chinese music either.