Wow and How: Steve Lehman’s Unexpected Confluences


Hear Lehman’s chat with Frank J. Oteri and listen to tracks from his recording catalog.

Listening to Steve Lehman’s 2009 octet recording Travail, Transformation, and Flow will probably at first leave you speechless but will then make you want to learn how he did it; or, as Lehman puts it, go through stages of “wow! and how?”. But although it may ultimately be like nothing you’ve ever heard before, there have been precedents for the kinds of extended harmonies and ensemble textures he coaxes from a group of improvisers. Hard bop alto man Jackie McLean was a personal mentor to Lehman, and an underappreciated Blue Note LP that McLean participated in—Grachan Moncur III’s 1963 Evolution—foreshadows his own eventual sound world as does Eric Dolphy’s classic 1964 date, Out to Lunch. However, Lehman’s approach, informed by spectral theory, is much more tightly controlled. He’s actually going for a PhD in composition at Columbia where he’s working with spectral guru Tristan Murail.

But to Lehman, the world’s of hard bop and spectralism are actually not that far apart. He points out that Jackie McLean’s “intense focus on sound and timbre ends up for me having a lot of overlap with the music of someone like Tristan Murail and his kind of extreme focus on timbre and the physics of sound. These things can have unexpected confluences.” In his formative years, Lehman also sought out some of the music’s most far-reaching adventurers, Anthony Braxton and George Lewis, whose combination of free improvisation and elaborate formal designs left an indelible impact on Lehman’s compositional trajectory.

While no one before Lehman has set out to merge the sensibilities of post-bop improvisation and spectralism, he’s quick to point out that there is “a long history of musicians in several musical genres thinking in a lot of the same ways, even if they don’t articulate it in the same manner. There’s a long history of thinking about these things in improvised music.”

But introducing the specifics of this way of thinking about timbre into a jazz context requires a bit of a mindset adjustment—spectral voicings don’t happen by chance. “Being really precise, about who is playing what note or how loud it is, is very essential,” Lehman maintains. “And that was one of the things that was really interesting to negotiate with the players—to deal with music that is so meticulously organized and then take it into a context where you’re looking all the time to create the space for players to do what they do best, assert their own creative agency inside the context of a given composition. Some of the nuts and bolts stuff—like being able to execute quartertones on woodwinds and brass instruments, which is something that comes with executing spectral harmonies a lot of the time—is something that we were able to move forward because it is something that I’ve gotten very comfortable with over the years, and I was able to draw from a peer group of colleagues that were also comfortable working in several different musical worlds. It feels like a point in time where there are musicians that have so many different tools at their disposal as instrumentalists that they can take these types of ideas to new levels.”

Travail, Transformation, and Flow is chock full of intervals that are outside the compass of standard 12-tone equal temperament. A track on the disc that particularly stands out is “Dub” where the microtonal harmonies really cry out thanks to the remarkable players Lehman has assembled to realize his ideas—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, vibraphonist Chris Dingman—all of whom are veterans of earlier Lehman sessions, plus tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, trombonist Tim Albright, and tuba man Jose Davila. But despite the improvisational dexterity of this crew, much of Lehman’s material is completely written out. In fact, the level of precision on Travail, Transformation, and Flow is perhaps what sets it furthest apart from Lehman’s earlier output, including the remarkable quintet session On Meaning as well as Fieldwork, an ongoing trio project with Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer, and Demian as Posthuman, the only album he’s released thus far which adds turntables and other electronically generated sounds to the mix.

Electronically generated material figures prominently in Lehman’s future compositional plans as well. “Part of what I got involved with very quickly, once I started to work here at Columbia, was developing a setup for saxophone and interactive electronics, mostly in the Max/MSP programming environment but also working with the Ableton Live. I’m hoping to integrate it more into my work. It will probably come out of necessity as well. If you don’t have seven or eight musicians to work with, you end up having to come with alternative solutions to realize that sound world via electro-acoustical formats.”

But no matter what combinations of sonic ingredients are at Lehman’s disposal, his seeming alchemical compositional magic results in music that makes you think but also totally swings.