Friday, August 01, 2014

CD Review: Steve Lehman Octet - Mise en Abime

Well, a lot of encouraging reaction came after the previous post about music streaming, but now I'm back to the esoteric jazz albums...

Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abime
(Pi Recordings)

The last time Steve Lehman convened an octet session, the result was nothing short of astounding. Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009) took the idea of groove and combined it with off-kilter textures and a view of harmony that didn't get bogged down by the theoretical approach to it. It was a bit of a surprise to me that alto saxophonist Lehman didn't become more widely known - a star, as much as there are stars in edgy jazz. Then again, he did receive a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award, and praise from, among others, Pat Metheny.

Lehman has gone on to collaborate with fellow alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump and to record an album with a trio. All of these combinations yielded worthwhile music but none really came close to the feeling of Travail. This might have something to do with Lehman's focus on spectral music, which takes overtones of source to make microtonal harmonies that are organized by frequency relationships instead of by intervals in a musical scale. The feeling of the music can be felt and appreciated more when eight musicians are playing it, and this otherwordly sound begins from the opening seconds of the album.

The previous paragraph might make Mise en Abime sound a little egg-headed and scholarly, but the Lehman Octet has plenty of life and feeling to it. The rhythm section of Drew Gress (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) straddle grooves and foundations to the music while they also get a chance to play off of the structures. Storey especially sounds like he's playing free time quite a bit, but he serves to punctuate the structure of the piece while he moves it along.

Chris Dingman's vibraphone has an strange harmonic resonance, because Lehman had the instrument custom built with alternate tunings. (Labelmate Hafez Modirzadeh did the same with the piano used on his 2012 Post-Chromodal Out! album, played by Vijay Iyer.) The sustained notes in "Segregated and Sequential" and "13 Colors" provides a broad quality to the music that evokes visuals as much as harmonies. That feeling is especially true in the opening of "Autumn Interlude" when the low brass and vibes form a cluster that serves as the musical equivalent of an oncoming October rainfall amidst piles of leaves. And that's only the introduction. As it proceeds, Lehman and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim trade lines with speed and clarity.

The album includes some reconstructions of compositions by pianist Bud Powell. His "Glass Enclosures" becomes even more angular and pointed in the hands of the group. "Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription" sounds nothing like Powell's classic trio version or the Clifford Brown/Max Roach version of "Parisian Thoroughfare." For two and a half minutes, Lehman sits at the piano and the alto, sketches out some kind of framework with accompaniment. In the background, samples of an interview with Powell play, with his name and Hank Jones' name occasionally coming to the surface of the recording. Full disclosure: I didn't undercover this on my own. It was only when I read a recent JazzTimes piece on Lehman that it came out. Of course, in this same blog I was taken to task by a reader after not being able to feel the foundation of Lehman's version of the John Coltrane piece "Moment's Notice" on the trio album. So maybe I need to listen harder.

Regardless, the piece closes the album with intrigue, like the blend of college practice rooms, a dream sequence and the opening of a hip-hop song (you can imagine a programmed beat kicking up after the piece finishes). The latter doesn't sound out of line since Lehman adds a cover of hip-hop duo Camp Lo's "Luchini" to his own "Chimera."

Throughout Mise en Abime, the lines between composition and improvisation get blurred - in a good way - and though "heads" of the tracks seem simple or minimal, there always seems to be bigger structure at work with them. Taking apart the various section of it makes for an intriguing listen.

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