Steve Lehman Octet – Mise en Abême [TrackList follows] – Pi Recordings Pi54, 39:45 [6/24/14] ****:
(Steve Lehman – alto saxophone, live electronics, producer; Jonathan Finlayson – trumpet; Mark Shim – tenor saxophone; Tim Albright – trombone; Chris Dingman – vibraphone; Jose Davila – tuba; Drew Gress – bass; Tyshawn Sorey – drums)
There is a newer generation of musicians who have been transforming or restructuring the shape of jazz, and creating music which has no boundaries or rethinks them. Examples include pianist Vijay Iyer, and saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa, John Zorn and Steve Lehman. Each, in their own way, has approached jazz in sometimes radical methods to keep the music progressively modern. On his second octet release, Mise en Abême, Lehman continues his pioneering amalgamation of spectral harmony and jazz improvisation. Lehman’s music is that rare thing: experimental and avant-garde but also accessible. There’s a lot of academic information which flows beneath Lehman’s musical productions, but in simplified form, he composes microtonal music with ample harmonic movement. This is a unique kind of fusion, where a chord based on a harmonic spectrum can be easily modulated to another tonal center.
In order to allow his muse to reach the fullest scope, Lehman founded a virtuosic group with a large horn section: Lehman on alto sax; Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet; Mark Shim on tenor sax; Tim Albright on trombone; and Jose Davila on tuba. The rhythm team consists of Chris Dingman on a custom-built vibraphone with alternate tunings; Drew Gress on bass; and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. The octet spent plenty of time on stage practicing and reconfiguring the eight pieces on Mise en Abême previous to booking a studio, and the performances show the band’s attention to detail. A sneak peek can be seen online during a two-minute EPK video.
On the opener, “Segregated and Sequential,” Lehman commences with a short solo before the group enters, with Dingman upfront on vibes and the horns advancing a stroboscopic frontline effect. Despite the theoretical inclinations, the music has a forceful physicality. The symmetrical “13 Colors” offers two sets of spectral chord changes during Lehman’s honed alto sax solo, and the track concludes in a surging ensemble harmony.
Lehman supplies two interesting cuts which he describes as transcriptions. First there is the vividly envisaged “Glass Enclosure Transcription,” where the octet produces music which seemingly bounds and rebounds and the configuration adjusts contour and texture in a liberating attitude. And then there is the “Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription,” which thoroughly remodels three Bud Powell works into a cutting-edge conception. Lehman takes Powell’s harmonic framework and recasts Powell’s ideas into an eerie spectral domain with laced electronics, found sounds, phantom voices and ghostly instrumentation. At 2:33, the brief number illuminates a side of Lehman which, if examined with magnification, could result in an investigative, future album project. Powell isn’t the only one who is tributed. Noted Cameroonian drummer Brice Wassy gets an homage during the lengthy “Codes: Brice Wassy,” where Lehman and Dingman nip at a motif or main theme, but just a trace or two. This extended, nearly eight-minute invention has a slightly obstinate ambiance, as if the players are gesturing in various directions at the same time but manipulating the same road map.
One of Lehman’s underpinnings is a constant use of understated electronics. These sounds are frequently eclipsed by more dominant brass, drums and bass elements, but the electronics are more aggressive on the two-part “Chimera/Luchini.” The first half includes a soundscape populated by Dingman’s open-ended vibraphone soloing mingled with Lehman’s shadowy, live digital reinforcement. The second half— a fascinating segment built from a hip-hop song—launches as Sorey’s drums escalate. It’s not often any percussionist can do justice to a hip-hop drum pattern, but Sorey is surely one who does. On Mise en Abême, Lehman has an analytical but also intuitive methodology to composition and unfastened group dynamics. He makes honestly challenging music which is also engaging and balanced. This is music which is halfway alien but also strangely welcoming, like an embrace from a visitor from a different dimension.
TrackList: Segregated and Sequential; 13 Colors; Glass Enclosure Transcription; Codes: Brice Wassy; Autumn Interlude; Beyond All Limits; Chimera/Luchini; Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription