Steve Lehman: Grooving Not Repeating

Phil DiPietro By

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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.
While many lament the current state of jazzy affairs, a closer look reveals a scene bursting with talent and potential, some of it more fully realized earlier than others. In 2004, no younger hopes for the future of jazz burned as brightly as the 26-year old alto saxophone phenom Steve Lehman. With what many thought was his debut recording (read on), Artificial Light , Lehman made his mark by asserting himself with authoritative command over music so incredibly demanding rhythmically it seemed as though he could make the ungrooveable groove- and groove hard. More than polymetric the music is polymorphic, achieving a stated goal of Lehman's, to "attempt to create a more groove-oriented music, without using repetition as a structural device."

One of 2004's highlights, the recording also pulled off the trick of making such challenging, cutting- edge jazz accessible, in no small part due to the softening effect of vibraphonist Chris Dingman, who somehow makes the whole session taste better, and the effortless mastery of the rhythm section, drummer Eric McPherson and ubiquitous bassist Drew Gress.

But the story of Lehman in 2004 doesn't begin and end with Artificial Light. He released another recording as well—the incendiary Interface —recorded live in Portugal with the Camouflage Trio, which is Lehman with free-jazz veterans Pheeroan akLaff and Mark Dresser. This recording was so incisive and exciting in its genre that when taken together with Artificial Light begs the obvious question, "Is that the same Steve Lehman, and where did this guy come from?" We hope you'll find at least part of that question answered below.

All About Jazz: How old are you and where are you from? Where's your home now?

Steve Lehman: I'm 26 and originally from Brooklyn, New York, which is also where I live now. I lived in Hartford, Connecticut when I was younger and also went to high school in the Boston area. I've lived in France, off and on for a total of about three years as well.

AAJ: Did you pursue a formal musical education in secondary school or college? Was your time there your most intense growth period as a musician?

SL:Well, I've always tried to align myself with institutions that had a lot to offer both academically and musically. Milton Academy, where I went to high school, has a wonderful Jazz program, and is of course very rigorous academically as well. Wesleyan University, where I received my B.A. and M.A. is very similar in that way. I always felt challenged intellectually, and of course the music department there is pretty exceptional.

AAJ: What have been some of the most important concepts you've taken away from the academic part of your musical experience?

SL: In college and graduate school I was working mostly with Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard and Jackie McLean, over at the Hartt School of music. I also studied with people like Alvin Lucier, Ron Kuivila and Pheeroan akLaff, while doing my best to take advantage of the performance courses in South Indian and West African musical traditions that were offered at Wesleyan. It's hard to sum up the importance of the 6 years I spent at Wesleyan and even harder to know how much of it had to do with the fact that I was functioning within an academic environment.

I think it's safe to say that when I arrived at Wesleyan as a freshman I was pretty squarely focused on the music of people like Jackie McLean and John Coltrane. By the time I graduated, in 2002, I had been exposed to an extremely broad set of musical traditions. And also given the tools, by people like Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean and Jay Hoggard, to begin defining the parameters of my own music.

AAJ: It doesn't exactly jump out of your bio, but you are a Fulbright scholar circa 2002. Please touch on the nature of the grant proposal and the results/fruits of your work there.

SL: Right, I was awarded the Fulbright Grant in 2002 and lived in Paris from September of 2002 until August of 2003. I was doing research connected to the response of the French Jazz Press in the 1970s to African-American Experimental Composers like Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and Anthony Davis. I actually just finished an article based on that research, and expect it will be published in 2005.

AAJ: You taught an undergraduate course on current trends in improvised music at the Paris Conservatory. It's daunting to even ask you what the thrust of the concept of what you taught, but I will anyway.

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.

AAJ: To my mind, Artificial Light was one of the exemplary releases of 2004 and might I say the debut release of the year, largely because of what could most simply be described as a groundbreaking use of live loops combined with rhythmic acumen. How did these elements come to be priorities in your compositional style?

SL: Thanks for your kind words on the CD Phil. In fact, Artificial Light isn't a debut for me, as I released two discs on the CIMP label in 2001 and 2002. However, it's the first time there's been any kind of significant promotional push behind one of my albums, so I think a lot of people perceived and reacted to Artificial Light and Interface as though they were debut albums.

In terms of the compositions on Artificial Light , I like your use of the word "loops" in that it seems to evoke musical traditions separate from so-called jazz. In the end I don't know that my music employs loops anymore than the standard repertoire or anyone else's music that uses repeated forms. But I think I understand what you're implying. Certainly the music of people and groups like Aceyalone, Anti-Pop Consortium, and Autechre has had an effect on my work.

AAJ: How then did you conceptualize bringing it to fruition compositionally?

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