Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Head Music

Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi, 2009)

It cannot be said that the title of this album does not prepare the listener adequately for the music it describes. Saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is a fearless intellectual and his music comes far more from the head than the heart. Lehman has been exploring the possibilities of metric modulations and broken time for a few years now, both in his own work and in his outstanding trio Fieldwork with Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. His explorations have resulted in some of the most challenging and provocative music currently being made in American jazz.

For this new work, he has focused at least in part on his interest in the techniques of ‘spectral composition’, an approach most closely associated with the composer Tristan Murail, with whom Lehman has studied. This goes well beyond my areas of expertise, but the process apparently involves using computer modelling to base harmony on sound properties rather than on intervals. Its application to the dynamic of a jazz ensemble, particularly the relatively unconventional octet format, at least appears rather apt. The sheets of sound on the opening ‘Echoes’ are weird and disorientating, especially when combined with Lehman’s fondness for head-spinning rhythmic innovation. ‘Echoes’ sets the scene for what follows, which is essentially further explorations of the same ideas, with varying degrees of abstraction.

Lehman’s music here certainly sounds thoroughly composed and arranged. It will also sound somewhat unfamiliar to those ears fully rooted in the jazz tradition. It’s easy to see why it divides opinion (some find Lehman’s relentless complexity and harmonic approach alienating or even unmusical). Yet it’s also possible to approach this challenging music more positively and constructively. For all his preoccupations with software mapping and mathematical precision, much of this music feels spacious and liberated, even accounting for the constant distraction of Tyshawn Sorey’s rapid fire drumming. It works so well at least in part because the rhythm section of Sorey and Drew Gress are strong enough to handle the various subdivisions and tempo changes demanded by Lehman’s arrangements. It also seems that Lehman’s processes can be applied in a variety of ways, from fast tempos (‘No Neighbourhood Rough Enough’) to freer, almost lyrical environments (‘Waves’ – an apt title for this aquatic sounding piece).

This is not, it has to be said, emotional or emotive music. It does not invoke sensations of longing, neither does it express anything particularly profound about the human condition. Only ‘Waves’ approaches anything sensual and the abstruse nature of Lehman’s approach does not result in anything particularly mysterious. It is systems music, perhaps even designed to express nothing beyond itself. Perhaps one does have to work to understand this very specific musical language in order to appreciate it fully. This approach could easily lead Lehman up an artistic cul-de-sac (the same marginal route that many others have followed before him). To these ears, though, there’s something innately thrilling about the juxtaposition of these sheets of peculiar harmony with Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming, seemingly as much drawn from electronic music as from jazz. The impressive technique of the ensemble is put to good use in creating something vibrant and exciting.

Lehman’s success here is to break through borders that are too readily assumed to be closed. His confident absorption of techniques thought only applicable to specific areas of twentieth century composition reinforces the notion that spontaneous interaction and compositional processes need not be mutually exclusive. As if to take the genre-crossing project far beyond its logical conclusion, the album ends with a Wu-Tang Clan transcription, which is as enervating a jazz recording as I’ve heard all year.

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