Monday, February 11, 2008

The Meaning Of Life

Steve Lehman - On Meaning (Pi, 2007)

Ach! This eccentric, technically accomplished and highly individual album actually slipped out at the tail end of 2007, but surely must have been a serious album of the year contender. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is a major figure in a burgeoning wave of US jazz that is woefully ignored in this country (see also Scott Colley and Drew Gress, the latter of whom also appears here). He has some of the fearsome cutting edge fury of Steve Coleman, albeit without Coleman’s tiresome mystical pretensions and philosophical grandstanding.

These compositions are terrifyingly audacious, introducing intricate harmonic and rhythmic themes, with the players all having the conviction and courage to develop them fully. ‘Open Music’ and ‘Curse Fraction’ pull off the neat trick of being simultaneously mathematical and pretty, whilst the oh-so-cleverly titled ‘Haiku d’Etat Transcription’ is an appealing melting pot of ideas, somehow holding together in spite of the constant rhythmic meddling. At just 45 minutes, this is as mercilessly concise a jazz album as has appeared in recent years. It simply zips by, albeit so jam packed full of thrilling ideas that adding any more might have risked over-egging the pudding.

The group’s impact rests on two crucial elements – the consummate merging of sound between Lehman’s aggressive saxophone and Jonathan Finlayson’s pure-sounding trumpet, and the extraordinary precision of the rhythm section. Even at their most dexterous and adventurous, Drew Gress’ bass, Chris Dingman’s languid Vibraphone chords and Tyshawn Sorey’s remarkable drumming bond together with a powerful sealant. Sorey is particularly outrageous, risk-taking whilst holding a groove as tight as anything even Zigaboo Modeliste could muster.

Lehman’s doctrine is apparently ‘grooving without repetition’, and ‘On Meaning’ serves this central philosophy well. Even when the underpinning bassline is relentless, the soloists weave compelling and challenging ideas in and out of the mix, and Sorey’s troublemaking drumming rarely treads the same ground for too long. Lehman also seems as preoccupied with sound and texture as he is with rhythmic invention, so much of ‘On Meaning’ works as a hypnotic and immersing mood piece as well as a staggering display of musical virtuosity. Even at its most dynamic and asymmetrical, the music here still radiates energy and enjoyment, and sounds both intensely physical and palpably human.

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