Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More New (to Me) Sounds: Steve Lehman

The Internet is a wonderful creation; you can go on there searching for a particular thing and end up finding something completely unexpected--often delightfully so. In this case, it was a quick visit to Darcy James Argue's blog (since I hadn't been there in a while, and he was our featured artist for the "Listening Hour" portion of big band at the college today) that led me to something new. More specifically, this post--which discusses the possible implications of grant proposals and their possible effect on jazz music--led me to a list of performers whose receipt of grants may have led to subsequent recordings of high quality. The one name I hadn't heard of on the list, Steve Lehman (a saxophonist based in Brooklyn) sent me in search of some new sounds. And once again, I hit the jackpot: Did I dig what I heard? Check. Is the bulk of his catalogue on eMusic? Check. Did the sound intrigue me so much that I stayed up way too late listening to it? Once again, check. (And needless to say, two of his CD's are already loaded into my iTunes.)

Having gained acclaim for both his playing and his composition, Lehman's music has been described by some as being on the edge of avant-garde while maintaining a solid groove. A former student of both Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, the styles of those two masters are evident in what he does, even as he takes things in a completely new direction. And his sound is similar to that of a few other modern altoists I've been listening to lately--it's not the Bird sound, or the Phil Woods sound or the Kenny Garrett sound (the latter being quite popular among younger players these days); if anything, it reminds me a bit of Loren Stillman, but the compositional and improvisational differences between the two are many.

The first CD I acquired was a 2007 effort, Of Meaning (Pi Recordings). As with many CD's I've acquired recently, I was drawn to it for the simplest of reasons: I like the way it sounds. But there's a lot going on here: subtle meter shifts, collective improvisation, the use of microtones, and so on. The music grabbed me right away, but I have a feeling that, as more layers are peeled away, there will be even more to like. Among the things that stand out so far are some splashes of minimalism (always a personal favorite) and some tasty drumming from Tyshawn Sorey.

The second CD in my collection is an earlier effort, 2003's ArtificialLight (Fresh Sound Records), which includes Drew Gress (bass) and Chris Dingman (vibes) from the Of Meaning session. Though the opening tune is mostly "headless" (Lehman's alto enters on repeated notes underneath a vibes solo), the bulk of the program is rather tuneful, employing tenorist Mark Shim in tandem with the leader for an enjoyable sonic combination (I've found over the years that if you mix an E-flat saxophone and a B-flat saxophone, the resultant timbre is enjoyable, but combining two in the same key--say, alto and bari--often sounds like, well, bagpipes.)

But the recording that's intriguing me the most is the one I haven't bought yet: It's called Travail, Transformation, and Flow (PI Recordings), released just last month. Not only has Lehman's group expanded to an octet (the Of Meaning qunitet augmented by tenor, trombone and tuba), but the compositions themselves feature something new to these ears: the concept of spectral harmony. As described at the Pi website,
In spectral music, the physics of sound informs almost every compositional decision. Attack, decay, and timbre provide the source material for orchestration and musical form. The most prominent overtones of a given sound – of a clarinet or a church bell, for example – create a rich framework for microtonal harmonies that, with the help of computer analysis, are organized according to frequency relationships, as opposed to the intervals of a musical scale. Individual overtones are then assigned to specific instruments in an ensemble, and blended together to create striking new harmonies.
That's some deep stuff, and we sure didn't study that in Musical Acoustics in undergrad school. But the sounds are indeed striking, and--though it hasn't made it to eMusic yet, I find myself previewing it again and again on various download sites. Anyone want to bet that I cave and buy it at one of those places before it ever gets to eMusic? (UPDATE: I would in fact cave the following day, and the previews are an accurate representation of the album as a whole; it's quite enjoyable.)

So once again, totally by accident, I've discovered an outstanding player who is worthy of my attention (yours too). Time will tell how much of these new sounds will be integrated into my own playing, but for now, I'm really enjoying the listening.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my great friend and virtual brother Mark; celebration ensues tomorrow.

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