Wednesday, May 20, 2020

DL Review: Steve Lehman - Xenakis & the Valedictorian / Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - InWhatStrumentals

When the coronavirus pandemic kicked into high gear, Pi Recordings responded proactively with a musical series entitled This Is Now: Love In the Time of COVID. The label is producing special digital-only releases, with the proceeds going to people hit hard by the pandemic. Two have come out so far, with more promised in the near future.

Steve Lehman
Xenakis and the Valedictorian

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman was balancing a remote teaching position at California Institute of the Arts with the homeschooling of his two children in March of this year. When he realized the quarantine was going to preclude celebrating his mother's 80th birthday with her, he sent her a few short recordings of his daily saxophone practices - recorded in the passenger seat of his 2011 Honda CR-V. They became the tracks for his new EP.

Far from a lo-fi set of practice tunes, Xenakis and the Valedictorian is a ten-minute/ten track series of blasts that reaffirms Lehman's reputation as an innovator. He swears in the Bandcamp description that these tracks weren't doctored with effects. If that's true, he did a fine job of imagining what his horn would sound like if it were run through a flanger ("808s") or a vintage digital delay pedal with the pitch manipulation ("Formant vs. Formant"). Each brief track flows into one another, extended technique quickly getting shoved out of the way by tart blowing, and percussive pad smacking sharing space with the sound of air flow. Consider this a modern take of For Alto, created in a time where brevity is de rigeur and still allows a musician to make a strong statement. 

And happy belated birthday to Mrs. Lehman. (If I got your surname wrong, I apologize.) 

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

Pianist Vijay Iyer and poet-producer Mike Ladd released In What Language in 2003, capturing the mood of the post-9/11 world where discrimination and scapegoating were in full effect for Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and other non-whites. This new release takes the instrumental tracks from the album and presents them in some ways as meditations that reflect on both the current malaise and what the world looked like 17 years ago. 

Without words to drive the music, the instrumental set emphasizes the way Iyer arranged sharp contrast between tracks, in terms of mood and instrumentation. Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone) and Dana Leong (trombone as well as cello) create an often dreamy ambiance, while Iyer alternates acoustic piano and electronic keyboards, with Ladd also playing the latter. His longtime collaborator, bassist Stephan Crump, lays down grooves with drummer Trevor Holder that allow Iyer to play contrasting time signatures ("Rentals") or sprint over the piano keys like Cecil Taylor ("Iraqi Businessman"). As instrumentals the music still offers plenty to take in and contemplate. 

Proceeds from Lehman's album will help musicians in need while those from Iyer and Ladd's album will support immigrant groups and commnunities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

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