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TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says New York alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has been soaking up diverse influences for years. He's studied with hard bop saxophonist Jackie McLean and Chicago School of Jazz composers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis. Kevin says Lehman's music mixes offbeat grooves and offbeat thinking.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: In jazz, like any artform, there are historical moments when it seems like all the angles have been covered and there's nothing left to explore. And then someone comes along with a new idea or a new influence that points out a fresh direction. In Steve Lehman's case, the novel influence is spectral music, pioneered by French composers like one of his mentors, Tristan Murail. Spectralists come up with new ways of blending or blurring instrumental colors. They'll analyze the acoustical properties of, say, an E-flat played on trombone versus a B-natural struck on the vibes. By combining different instruments' overtones in specific ways, they get new timbres, sometimes with rough interference patterns built in.

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WHITEHEAD: Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman from his octet album "Travail, Transformation & Flow." In Lehman's spectral music, the sound of one instrument can morph into the sound of another. On his "As Things Change, I Remain the Same," horn chords emerge from and then disappear into the metallic sound of Chris Dingman's vibraphone.

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WHITEHEAD: Steve Lehman starts by mutating instrumental colors in his five horn octet, but that's just the beginning. The speed at which certain sounds unfold helps determine the right tempo. And he likes to distort his basic rhythms. Lehman will take an odd pattern and then add or drop beats here and there to throw it out of whack, to put a deliberate glitch in the fabric, and he'll layer parts over one another so rhythms can clash, the way overtones might. That's Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet.

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WHITEHEAD: One key reason Steve Lehman's brainiac music works is that it really moves on the shoulders of rhythm aces Drew Gress on bass and new drum star Tyshawn Sorey. They have their own idiosyncratic groove, even before vibes and tuba get involved. Their timing breathes and oozes and swings in some weird way.

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WHITEHEAD: Steve Lehman loves off-center grooves like that. His album "Travail, Transformation & Flow" ends with an instrumental version of "Living In the World Today" by Jizza of the Wu-Tang Clan, where the rhythm section replicates the slightly skewed beats of looped hip-hop samples. Lehman has made other records. But this one sounds like the start of a mature phase. He now has enough ways of developing materials to keep him busy for a good long time.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas and he's the jazz columnist for eMusic.com. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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