Thursday, March 29, 2012

CD Review: Steve Lehman Trio - Dialect Flourescent

Steve Lehman Trio
Dialect Flurescent
(Pi Recordings)
When Steve Lehman released Travail, Transformation and Flow in 2009, it knocked my socks off. It was edgy music that had brains and brawn; rigid structures that still managed to sound extremely engaging and welcoming. I've got follow every step this alto player makes, I thought. A year later, he and Rudresh Mahanthappa collaborated on Dual Identity (see my review here: It wasn't quite as mind-blowing as Travail but it was still pretty solid.
Dialect Flourescent places Lehman in the context of a trio with Matt Brewer (bass) and Damion Reid (drums), who also played on Dual Identity. Listening to opener "Allocentric" the first few times, something felt a little unsettling about it. Then it hit me: All three guys are playing the same thing; the same tricky time pattern, the same uneven cluster of notes, even Reid. While the delivery is impressive, this kind of thing sounds a little too tense and makes me feel restless. It's almost like math jazz. Part of my hesitation comes from the fact that Travail was played by an octet, so the focus of the music was regularly shifting between three horns and vibes. Here, it's just a bright, semi-sharp alto and rhythm for virtually the whole album. Everything is front and center from the get-go.
Yet as the album proceeds, things loosen up a little, although Lehman's ability to execute a barrage of notes in a solo is something that ceases. (That's a good thing, by the way. It reminds me in a way of when Anthony Braxton covered Monk's "Skippy" at a tempo that made his alto lead sound like a spray of bullets.) The biggest surprise comes in the next track, a reading of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice." It isn't recognizable until the trio plays the theme at end of it, and even then it's hard to say if they Brewer had been following the changes of the song or not. The album's alternating pattern of following a Lehman piece with a cover continues and provides an interesting view of the band. After each mathy turn, the trio swings fast and furiously through Duke Pearson ("Jeanine") and Lehman's former teacher Jackie McLean ("Mr. E"). Between those two, he chooses a real out-there cover, "Pure Imagination" from the Willy Wonka soundtrack, which gets a little frenzied. "Alloy" and "Fumba Rebel," the two originals in the second half of the album, aren't as locked into the rigidity of the earlier pieces, as if they took a cue from the bop covers.
There are plenty of moments on Dialect Fluorescent that maintain my fascination with Lehman - his speed and agility, the way he solos in unusual groups of note patterns. It's just that the delivery feels the same in many tracks, like the group wants to devour the music rather than savour it. Still, it makes me want to hear more of him, making me tempted to get his other albums and the rest of the discs by Fieldwork, his collaborative trio with Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. Maybe I'll listen to this again too.


Anonymous said...

Nice review. Damion Reid (not Damion Reed). Have you heard Lehman's trio disc from 2004 with Mark Dresser and Pheeroan akLaff? Ancient history I know.

shanleymusic said...

Thanks. Glad you liked it. I'll fix Mr. Reid's name. If you are Damion, sorry about that. Don't know the other Lehman disc but I'm thinking about ordering the others that are on Pi.

Tom Rubinstein said...

Thanks for the review. Very thoughtful. Not sure I get this comment on "Moment's Notice":

[A]nd even then it's hard to say if they Brewer had been following the changes of the song or not.

I'm guessing you're not a musician -- I'm a guitar player. But the bass is basically only playing the roots of Moment's Notice chord changes the whole time. I think it's pretty clear :)

shanleymusic said...

Tom, thanks for the feedback. I am a musician and a bassist at that, thought I can't play jazz. [See profile, or whatever it's called.] I listened to it a lot and didn't exactly pick up on it. And I listened several times before writing. Maybe I'm conditioned to not hear the root notes of the song.
I should probably put that disc on again and see what I think of it.

Tom Rubinstein said...

Makes sense. In that case maybe hearing solos before the melody is clearly stated just isn't your cup of tea. They're definitely playing in a weird meter like 9 I think...but I'm sort of blown away that they can keep that together and play the changes like that as a duo. I suppose for people familiar with the tune, there's definitely no doubt it's Moment's Notice after the first measure...have you heard the original on Blue Train?

shanleymusic said...

Is there any other version other than the one on Blue Train? I'm being a bit rhetorical in saying that. I'm pretty sure I've heard someone else cover it recently but it escapes me.
I feel like I wouldn't have been able say what I said if I didn't know the original. "Definitive" and all that.
Maybe I was just going on the contrast with the original. When I didn't hear the opening eight-note phrase delivered like Trane, I was listening to differences.
Regardless, I didn't pick up on it, which I suppose is really a credit to Lehman.

Tom Rubinstein said...

Got you. Yeah, I figured it had to do with not hearing the melody up-front. But, then again, you do say that "it's hard to tell if they were playing the changes or not"...and based on how clearly both the bassist and the saxophonist are outlining the changes -- Lehman's pitch choice is pretty tame here and, again, bass playing roots -- it sort of leads one to wonder what kind of playing *would* make it clear for you that they were playing the changes...hard to say, but you make it sound like you're much more familiar with the melody than the chord changes. Sound fair?