Listening Session: Steve Lehman

Steve Lehman


Steve Lehman's new record was partially inspired by the compositional strategy called spectralism — whatever that is. Photo Credit: Dominik Huber

I host a little program called The Checkout. The point of this show (if there is just one) is to inject a concentrated dose of new music adrenaline straight to the heart of jazz radio.

To that end, I've enlisted Ben Ratliff, music critic for the New York Times, to help me revive the comatose. Every other week, I go to Ben's apartment. We pull some CDs from the pile of music in his home office, music that both of us have already absorbed, and listen to them again — with microphones.

We recently listened to new music from saxophonist Steve Lehman. His recording, Travail, Transformation, and Flow comes out next week.

Lehman creates a compositional vehicle for improvisation through spectralism, an aesthetic form of writing music based upon the spectral analysis of sound — attack, decay, timbre, etc. If that last sentence just blew your mind, welcome to the club. Spectral music would take a dissertation to explain, so just chew on that oversimplified definition for a while.

OK. Ready for more?

No music exists in a vacuum, unless you're using one to create sound effects (see: "Cabaret Hoover" from The Triplets of Belleville). Lehman is creating an exciting sound in modern jazz, but not without some earlier precedents in the sonority. The combination of alto and vibes made Ben Ratliff immediately think of Eric Dolphy's seminal Blue Note recording, Out to Lunch. Hear some of the title track:

You'll also find some "echoes" in other great Blue Note dates like Grachan Moncur's Evolution, or two of Jackie McLean's forward-thinking records, Destination...Out! and One Step Beyond, even though none of the guys on those records were saying to each other, "Hey, let's make some spectral music!"

Steve Lehman was a student of saxophonist Jackie McLean, a man who, like Dolphy, made the alto saxophone sound unlike Charlie Parker, even when he played bebop on it. McLean's acidic tone strikes hard enough to be measured on a pH scale. Lehman comes from that tradition, and he's definitely adding to it — from the perspectives of both scientific methodology and artistic ingenuity.

Anyway, this is just what two guys who listen to a lot of music think about Steve Lehman. When you listen for yourself, you may think of something else. Feel free to get the information straight from the horse's mouth: Lehman joins me on The Checkout tomorrow night to talk about the new record.

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