Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Steve Lehman Trio in Cleveland

I've been a fan of Steve Lehman since I heard his 2009 album Travail, Transformation and Flow. The alto saxophonist recorded it with an octet, creating some of the most unique post-millennium jazz I felt I had ever heard. Plus his alto technique is pretty staggering, with lines that attack with lightning speed and still manage to stop on a dime, mid-thought, twisting the melody even more creatively into some time signature that gets too distracting to try and count. He has a wild tone as well, blunt and a little gruff but crystal clear at the same time.

Lehman has recorded a few albums with a trio of drummer Damion Reid and bassist Matt Brewer. The latest, The People I Love, adds pianist Craig Taborn to the trio and was released by Pi just recently. A few years ago, he brought hit octet to Oberlin College, including drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Having missed that show, I made it my mission to get to Cleveland to see the trio at the Bop Stop this past Sunday, September 22. It was worth the trip

First of all, the Bop Stop is a beautiful place. A few friends of mine head down there regularly (and in fact where there on Friday to see Miles Okazaki) but I didn't know what kind of space it was, jazz club vs. just a room with a p.a. It is a beautiful room with great acoustics, tables down front near the stage, a bar in the back and a great view of Lake Erie out the windows. (Locals might not call it "great," but this out-of-towner dug it.) Once a free-standing club, it's now a non-profit space connected to the Music Settlement, which provides music therapy and instruction.

Midway through a seven-day tour that started in California, the trio was extremely tight. You have to be for the kind of jagged music that they play, but they were comfortable with the nuances of it to take it to a level that generated excitement. 

Reid was a perfect example of this comfort level because he never looked at his kit while he was playing, but knew exactly when to hit, tearing off fills like they were nothing. It seemed like Lehman didn't stop to take a breath at all during the first piece, circular breathing to keep the notes flying. A few times, Brewer looked to his left and it seemed like he was keeping casual eye contact going with Reid. But after awhile, it started to look more like he was eyeing up the neck of his bass, as if he was getting into a deep conversation with his instrument about how to drive the music. Sitting right in front on center stage, it was sometimes hard to hear Brewer's playing clearly, but you could definitely feel it. His solo in "Fumba Rebel" provided plenty of evidence that he was working hard. A few tunes later, Reid opened a song with drum solo that hit hard as thunder.

Lehman didn't make light of it being the day before John Coltrane's birthday, but he did play two of the tenor giant's pieces. "Moment's Notice" was recorded on the trio's Dialect Flourescent and like that version, the theme proper didn't appear until the end of the song. Until the point, it was a detailed, pointillistic exploration of the melody. Earlier in the set, they played Coltrane's "Satellite," taking it in 7/8, which Reid swung like crazy.

On disc, I've been partial to Lehman's octet work but The People I Love is changing that. The trio has really grown and developed into a remarkable group. Instead of laying a foundation for the saxophonist's playing, Reid and Brewer play in a way that's deeply connected to Lehman, helping it stretch and retract as one.

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