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Steve Lehman

Drew Gress

Tim Albright

Photos by Rudy Lu

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Troy, NY
May 28, 2010

by Jeff Waggoner

The first time I heard Steve Lehman’s music, I was in a reverie at my computer. Pandora Radio was on. It was aural wallpaper. That is, until a piece by Lehman came on, and I knew I was hearing something different.

His music is intellectual without being cold. Abstract without being soulless. Calculated, yet with an organic, vibrant feel.

I thought he couldn’t be missed in person. And I didn’t miss.

At the Steve Lehman Octet’s May 28th concert at EMPAC in Troy, guests were handed a program that included Lehman’s musical biography. It was notable in what it didn’t include, which was not a single mention of “jazz.” Contemporary music. Improvised music. Neue Musik. But not jazz. The term “jazz” was hidden

But there is no hiding his pedigree. That’s jazz. A composer and alto saxophonist, Lehman has studied with both Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxon. He played in groups led by Dave Burrell, Oliver Lake, Mark Dresser and Vijay Iyer.

The Lehman Octet is made up of alto, tenor, trumpet, trombone, tuba, vibraphone, bass and drums. It could very well be a jazz band. But it’s not. It is an ensemble.

The musicians read from scores and the instruments played together Saturday night very often as one voice. The drummer, the spectacular Tyshawn Sorey, was behind them, stoking the fire and getting it has hot as a Siberian coal stove in winter. Sorey is a sorcerer with a drum kit. Drawing sounds out of the instruments(s) one doesn’t expect.

The group played eight songs. Many of the songs came from the octet’s recent recording, Travail, Transformation & Flow (Pi 2009), a brilliant showcase for Lehman’s compositional chops. If his music sounds like it was constructed by a Ph.D candidate in composition, that’s because it was. Lehman both studies and teaches at Columbia University in the Music Department.

With titles like Waves, Dub, Echoes and Alloy, the music felt like sculpture at times. Or experiments at physics. Or, to use a hackneyed phrase, Lehman’s compositions sound like the work of a lapidarist. Carefully and beautifully constructed. Everything a part of the whole.

Downbeat (yes, that jazz publication) has named Lehman a “rising star” in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Downbeat is wrong. In my mind, Lehman’s star rose a long time ago. That time years ago when Pandora decided to introduce him to me.

Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Down Beat, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times.