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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.

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