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?

SL: It's different for every piece on the record. And often times it wasn't something that I was actively pursuing as much as I have been lately with Fieldwork, for example. A lot of the music on Artificial Light has to do with the ways in which composing with a computer has affected the way that I conceive of music for an acoustic ensemble and my expectations in terms of the types of materials that a given musician will be able to get creative with.

AAJ: How then do you "teach" it to the musicians involved?. I 'm also assuming here you've got to do a minimum of teaching and rehearsal with guys like you've got in your band.

SL: The music requires a good deal of rehearsing, but a lot of it has to do with the incredible abilities of people like Drew Gress, and Eric McPherson and Chris Dingman and Tyshawn Sorey, who are able to internalize very precise and specific formal information in a way that affords each musician a great deal of agency when performing the music.

AAJ: Explain how you came to work with Chris Dingman , and the special relationship you have musically.

SL: I met Chris at Wesleyan. He's a couple years younger than I am and received his B.A. the same year I got my M.A. He had been taking lessons with me at Wesleyan, and was one of those students who digested huge amounts of information in very short periods. I think we started playing together in Connecticut a little bit. He came and sat in with one of my groups in NYC a couple times. I knew he would work hard on the music and that we were interested in a lot of the same areas, so it kind of took off from there.

AAJ: Plus you are listed as a member of his band and vice versa. How does his compositional thrust most differ from your own?

SL: Well, I would never claim to be an expert on Chris's music. But he writes a lot of incredible things for the vibes that I could never do. And he's just his own person, so all of that comes across in his music- like the fact that he played drums for many years and studied mridingam quite seriously- or that he's from San Jose. It's great music.

AAJ: Certainly, the arranging and performance on Artificial Light sounds so much like a band project it seems as though this was and should remain a group. On the other hand, with the caliber of musicians you're playing with, this can be deceptive to the listener. So generally, explain to us how or even whether, the musicians on Artificial Light will continue to move forward as a band.

SL: I hope it will. We certainly played that music a lot and rehearsed a lot before we went into the studio. I definitely hope to keep working with everyone who plays on the album. Lately Jonathan Finlayson has been playing with the group in place of Mark Shim, which has been fantastic. And Tyshawn Sorey has played drums on most of our recent concerts. But these things tend to be cyclical. I'm always thinking of Eric McPherson and Mark Shim and ways that we'll be able to work together in the future.

I also play a lot of the music from Artificial Light with a quartet I formed when I was living in Paris— Karl Jannuska , Michael Felberbaum , and Stephane Kerecki. Incredible musicians, all capable of really transforming the music. Usually when I perform the music in Europe it's with this ensemble, though I hope to tour with Drew and Chris and Tyshawn and all of those guys very soon.

AAJ: Please hip the audience to a bit of the Camouflage Trio's shared history.

SL: Pheeroan teaches at Wesleyan, so I came into contact with him that way, and was immediately blown away by his music and his creativity. I met Mark Dresser through a recording of Kevin Norton's that we both played on, and of course Mark's work as an instrumentalist and a composer is pretty extraordinary. I think we first performed as a trio in 2001 at Wesleyan University and then did some shows in New York as well. The recording we did in Portugal came at the end of a short European tour and I was very pleased with the group sound that we had developed at that point.

AAJ: Is this new recording with Pheeroan and Dresser your first?

SL: Yes, it's the first recording we've done together.

AAJ: Why did you elect to release this live recording versus a studio project?

SL: It just kind of ended up that way. And it made the most sense for the label, Clean Feed, to record the music that way. Because the music is so much about the interaction between the three of us, doing a live recording seemed like a natural way to document the music.

AAJ: Do you work on sopranino more with Camouflage and why?

SL: The sopranino is an amazing instrument, but the context has to be correct. I've used it with almost every group I'm a part of at this point. I don't play it on Artificial Light , but it's also featured on one of the tracks on the new Fieldwork CD, Simulated Progress.

AAJ: How did working with the Fieldwork project come together?

SL: Vijay Iyer called me in October of 2003 and asked me if I'd be open to filling the saxophone chair in the group. I really loved the groups first CD with Aaron Stewart, and had of course been admiring Vijay and Elliot Kavee's work for some time, so things took off pretty quickly.

AAJ: Please enlighten us regarding the compositional elements of that band.

SL: The basic idea, since I joined the group has always been to develop material collaboratively, and to work on music that we would never be able to realize in any other context. And that can have to do with music that is extremely demanding on a technical level, but it can also have to do with music that comes alive because of a highly refined group aesthetic that we work on over the course of many months, and in the case of our last CD, a year.

AAJ: What's next for Fieldwork ?

SL: We recorded a new CD for Pi Recordings in September of 2004, and will be on tour in Europe in May 2005 in support of that album. Elliot Kavee decided to leave the group at the end of 2004, so Tyshawn Sorey will be filling the drum chair, and contributing as a composer as well, which everyone is very excited about. There are plans to do a West Coast tour as well as more dates in Europe, so we'll have to see what comes to fruition in 2005.

AAJ: Fieldwork's and your own music are linked by the common fantastic and "new" kineticism in the unfolding of the music. Please take a shot at where Fieldwork will share most in your rhythmic concept, and where your rhythmic concept might be better applied to your own projects.

SL: That's a difficult question to answer in any kind of satisfying way. Speaking in very broad terms, the work I've done with Fieldwork has tended to deal with very specific problems and conceptual materials, both rhythmic and otherwise. In my own band, I might address one compositional concept or collection of concepts over the course of several pieces. Each piece on the new Fieldwork album is truly a world unto itself, though I find there's also a great deal of continuity through out the record, and from the band's first record to the second; most likely having to do with what was more often than not a very rigorous rehearsal process.

AAJ: Care to shed any light on the transition in the sax and drum chairs for Fieldwork? For instance I know you've worked with Braxton and Andrew Hill and so as Aaron Stewart. Now you're succeeding him in this context

SL: Well, Aaron has certainly worked much more closely with Andrew than I have at this point, but I do think that there's a good deal of common ground and common interests between someone like myself and Aaron or Elliot and Tyshawn. There are a lot of parallels in terms of the types of people we have worked with as you point out. Aaron, Vijay, Elliot, Tyshawn - these are all amazing musicians with highly unique compositional voices, who have demonstrated both technical virtuosity and the capacity for truly original and creative abstract thought. It's a real honor to be associated with this circle of musicians.

AAJ: Will we see a release from your project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, called "Dual Identity" anytime soon? Will this be only duo saxophone or is there a band approach as well?

SL: My hope is that Dual Identity will be able to record a duo album in 2005. We have a book of compositions for quintet, but more recently we've been focusing on the duo. We recently did a concert at Tonic that was pretty exciting.

AAJ: Please try to impart concept of Dual Identity and what you're trying to impart to the listeners.

SL: I first heard Rudresh's music in 1999 at a festival in Verona. I was pretty blown away at the time, and more recently we had been checking out each other's music and kind of realizing how few young alto players their were that we could actually relate to. It's an exciting project because we have so much in common in terms of our musical tastes and interests, and yet we have very different approaches to the instrument, in part due to the fact that our musical backgrounds are quite different. Essentially we've been trying to find ways to use the legacy of the alto saxophones as a point of departure for creating innovative and compelling music.

AAJ: In terms of harmonic territory, are there particular sources that you would point interested people towards?

SL: Well, it's hard to pinpoint. Like a lot of people, I don't really think it terms of functional harmony at this point. At the same time, I often strive to create a harmonic framework that has real identity and is in constant evolution. Rhythm. Melody. Harmony. I don't think one can exist or be critically examined without the other two. Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey and other Spectralists have explored some of the compositional implications of the fact that every individual sound event is in fact a harmonic spectrum unto itself; with the exception of sine waves etc. As far as musical sources that have had an effect on my thinking about harmony, the list would be too long, but to name a few: Andrew Hill, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Tristan Murail, Squarepusher, Jackie McLean, Schoenberg, Eric Dolphy, Charlie Parker, Gyorgy Ligeti, Wayne Shorter, Bismillah Khan, Lamonte Young, John Coltrane, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer... that should last me and everyone else about 200 years!

AAJ: What aspects of your own playing style would you point listeners to? How would you attempt describing your own playing style? For instance, while it's easy for a critic to draw comparisons to an Osby or a McLean or a Dolphy, how would you describe it without invoking the name of another saxophonist?

SL: Yes, it's true that it's often easiest to describe a personal instrumental voice in alluding to other instrumentalists. In my case, I am trying to develop an approach to the saxophone that is personal and unique in every way. Separate from that, my hope is to develop an approach to the saxophone that will continue to demonstrate both technical precision and innovation as well as conceptual advancements with regard to the instrument. I'll go ahead and break your rule now and point to Mark Shim, Aaron Stewart, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mark Turner and Greg Osby as examples of saxophonists who, for me, demonstrate these qualities in their work as instrumentalists, albeit in a different way than I hope to cultivate these same qualities in my own playing.

AAJ: What aspects of your compositional style would you point listeners to? How would you attempt describing your own compositional style?

SL: Unfortunately that question was the subject of an extended Master's Thesis in 2002, so suffice to say that it's difficult to go into in any detail in the context of an interview, but I will say that, like my work as an instrumentalist, I'm constantly trying to define my music in a way that will demonstrate both technical and conceptual innovations as well as the potential for constant growth and evolution.

AAJ: Do you have other concepts for other, different solo projects?

SL: Well, yes I do of course, but at the same time, I still have a lot of music that hasn't been documented such as my chamber works and my orchestral music. And, again my hope is that my music will evolve as a result of its content and not most largely because of a change in personnel or musical context. The new Fieldwork CD will come out in 2005 which I'm very excited about. I will record an album under my own name for Pi Recordings as well, which I'm looking forward to as the people at Pi have been very supportive and allowed me to explore several areas of interest that other labels would not have been open to. More to come I hope...

AAJ: How do you feel about the effects of the Internet on the music scene?

SL:Well for those that have access to the internet, there is certainly an abundance of information that is newly available. I think you might need a social-scientist to more fully address the myriad implications of that question.

AAJ: Would you ever consider marketing recordings totally independently, via Internet?

SL: I'm flexible when it comes to medium. If those people interested in my music prefer to have it in CD format, I'll do my best to make it available. If MP3s overtake CDs, so be it.

AAJ: What music holds your most extreme interest these days, and what of it may influence your next project or recording? What's in your CD case at the moment?

SL: There hasn't been too much that's knocked me out lately. Anthony Braxton and Michael Finnissy's music are a constant source of inspiration. I really like Craig Taborn's Junk Magic album. I thought the tracks on Steve Coleman's Lucidarium album with vocalists were very special. Other than that, it's been old favorites, Jackie McLean, Aceyalone, Heinz Holliger, Sarah Vaughn with Joe Williams, Janacek's first String Quartet, Jill Scott, Mark Dresser, George Lewis...that's what's in the mix lately.

AAJ: Are there any musicians you would particularly like to work with that you have not?

SL: Yes, of course. I'm working on it!

AAJ: To wrap up, please tell us your musical plans, or projects in the pipeline, for 2005 and beyond.

SL: As I've mentioned I'll be doing a new album for Pi Recordings. I will also most likely put out a live CD of the music from the Artificial Light record on Fresh Sound. Clean Feed has asked me to do another project for them as well which I'm looking forward to. The Fieldwork album Simulated Progress will come out and we'll be touring in Europe and regionally in support of that. Dual Identity will be looking to record in 2005 as well. I'm hoping to begin working again with Kevin O'Neil who is an amazing instrumentalists and composer. There is a project in the works with the French Embassy to do a Franco-American Improvised music festival sometime in 2005. And I'm getting married in August...!

AAJ: As a scholar of the music and such a forward thinker and achiever, and as a relatively young person on the jazz map, I would like to take this opportunity to ask you your thoughts on the current state of jazz in the marketplace. Generally, the critical establishment, fans and musicians bemoan the current state of jazz on the map. Perhaps just a few thoughts on what we can all do to improve things.

SL: I just read an interview in the February 2005 issue of the WIRE that Brian Morton did with Anthony Braxton in which Braxton comments that we are headed into a "new Dark Ages" as a global community. I'm sad to say that as a young person living in the United States, almost every aspect of my day-to-day life points to the accuracy of Braxton's statement. My work, and the work of my peers and mentors exist, for the most part, in opposition to the global trends and phenomena evoked by Anthony's comments. In a time period in which almost every aspect of humanity is increasingly defined by its potential connection to a given marketplace, the contributions of these artists has never seemed more vital to me.

Visit Steve Lehman on the web.

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin

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