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Review An amalgam of creative iconoclasm

CHRIS SEARLE on jazz

Steve Lehman Octet
Travail, Transformation and Flow (PI30) 
Mise en Abime (PI54)

WITH two virtuosi like the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean from the post-bop era and the enigmatic free jazz multireedman Anthony Braxton as his teachers, the New Yorker Steve Lehman, born in 1978, was virtually bound to have something new to say in his music.

These two albums, with Lehman blowing within an octet formation including some powerful bandmates, show his most recent lines of sonic travel.

The octet is an amalgam of musical experience and creative iconoclasm.

Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson burns hot in his own band and in bands led by discoverers like Steve Coleman and Mary Halvorson.

Tenorist Mark Shim, born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973, is at already a veteran, having played in Elvin Jones’s Jazz Machine, with Hamiet Bluiett and the Mingus Big Band as well as waxing three Blue Note albums between 1998 and 2000, and Californian vibesman Chris Dingman has played with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard.

Bassist Drew Gress, born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1959, goes back to being a sideman of historic figures like Cab Calloway, Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims, while drummer Tyshawn Sorey, born in 1980 in Newark, New Jersey, plays with pioneer free spirits like Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Muhal Richard Abrams.

Puerto Rican tuba specialist Jose Davila, who was raised in New York and Philadelphia, played with extremes of jazz from Ray Charles to Henry Threadgill, and trombonist Tim Albright is described as a “sought-after chamber musician and a cutting-edge jazz artist.”

Truly, here is as eclectic an octet as you would find, bursting with creative surprise and brilliance.

In 2008 they recorded the album Travail, Transformation and Flow in Brooklyn.

Lehman describes his octet sound, with its use of live electronics and custom-built vibraphone, as “spectral harmony,” as if the ghosts of a century of jazz are set loose to unify in new and untold ways.

In the opener, Echoes, the horns float over the electronics almost mysteriously before Lehman’s alto bursts in, Sorey awakens and the tension between human power and spark power is manifest.

RudreshM reflects on the Indian-American alto sounds of Rudresh Mahanthappa and first Shim, then Finlayson blow out over Dingman’s vibes chimes.

Brief and emphatic horn solos cut through As Things Change (I Remain the Same) and in Alloy Albright’s poised trombone begins the union before an ensemble preludes the terse sound of Lehman’s cutting alto over the continuous excitation of Sorey’s drums.

Shim’s solo is fiery and bustling, Finlayson’s notes are on the edge of creation, and when he and Lehman play as a duo to end the track, you suddenly realise, now it has tone, the essential impact on the band of Dingman’s pulsating vibes.

The sleeve photograph on the album of the same octet Mise en Abime, some five years on shows a surface of the Earth dominated by electrical installations, covered by blue light.

The notes to the album describe the “shimmering, otherworldly sonorities that are created through the precise juxtaposition of individual instrumental voices,” and yet three of the tracks have their origins in the brain and piano artistry of the bop genius Bud Powell (1924-66), whose blues-baked, heartsblood sound was just about as earthly as it is possible for music to be.

Lehman’s solo improvised fanfare to the opener, Segregated and Sequential, followed by ringing horn harmonies and Dingman’s relentless chimes is followed by 13 Colors, earthed by Sorey’s volcanic drums undertow.

Powell lives beneath the rumbling reinvention of Glass Enclosure Transcription, and Albright and Shim keep it deep with delving choruses.

Codes: Brice Wassy is a homage to the Cameroonian drummer, much of it essayed without Sorey’s drums and some deft unaccompanied solo rhapsodies by Finlayson.

By the time of the last track, another Powell metamorphosis, the Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription, with Bud’s piano and disembodied voice and Lehman’s warm lyricism, the truth that he mentored McLean who mentored Lehman, makes intense timbral sense: that despite revolutions of sound between, the same tradition passes through and goes beyond generations and categories: all are heard, all are connected, all are one.

Chris Searle on Jazz appears every Tuesday in the paper edition of the Morning Star.

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