Saxophonist Steve Lehman is part of a squadron of improvisers who are raising the bar of musicianship for their entire generation, as both instrumentalists and composers. Heady artists such as Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey, both of whom have performed with Lehman, are as inspiring as they are, at times, difficult to pin down.
One would be hard-pressed to earnestly label Lehman, who performs on Wednesday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, a “jazz musician.” And for what it’s worth, he doesn’t find jazz “to be a term that is particularly helpful these days. In some cases, to refer to myself as a jazz musician [doesn’t make sense] because it is so broadly defined, depending on who you are talking to,” he says. Instead, Lehman aims to “orient the discussion around certain key practitioners: Jackie McLean, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Betty Carter. That seems to be the best strategy I’ve found to let people know where I’m coming from.”
Lehman, 33, has quickly become one of the most respected and compelling saxophonists and composers in contemporary improvised music. His musical projects range broadly from work with his octet to duet recordings to an innovative electro-acoustic project using alto saxophone and the computer program Ableton Live. With his newest release, Dialect Fluorescent, on Pi Records, Steve has explored perhaps a more mainstream and accessible format than on his highly advanced and often-complicated previous releases. As opposed to his octet record, on which he presented what he considers “the first fully realized exploration of spectral harmony in the history of recorded jazz,” his newest release is an album that deals with jazz techniques as directly as any record he’s made.
It contains all the elements: A satisfying mix of original and standard tunes, and even an arrangement of a show tune. Joining him are bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, two of the most exciting musicians in the contemporary jazz scene. It must be noted that a drummer as powerful and technical as Reid is absolutely necessary in a Steve Lehman-led group. The saxophonist’s compositions often employ complex rhythmic shifts and odd meters, which for a drummer like Reid, must be simultaneously painful and joyous.
An advanced instrumentalist and composer at a relatively young age, Lehman has been blessed to have worked with some important masters of jazz and creative music. He studied composition and improvisation at Wesleyan University with experimental composer and improviser Anthony Braxton, while concurrently studying jazz with the great hard-bopper Jackie McLean at the Hartt School of Music. In these two iconic alto saxophonists, Lehman received the best of separate worlds. But they both encouraged him to find his own voice, and to have respect for and knowledge of the past. “Both of those guys, as different as they are, and as much as they articulate their own distinct personalities through music, tend to emphasize the same kind of thing as teachers and mentors. And that is the prioritizing of developing a real personal and unique language, both as an instrumentalist and a composer, and having that language informed by an intimate knowledge of the past and the musical history that is most relevant and most inspiring to you,” Lehman said.
Steve is also a gifted academic. As a Fulbright scholar, he traveled to Paris to research and compose a formidable scholarly article about the French Jazz Press’ reception of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and of new music played by African Americans in the 1970s. The piece is titled, “I Love You with an Asterisk: African-American Experimental Composers and the French Jazz Press, 1970-1980.”
He took the advice from his mentors and sought out knowledge of the past, focusing on this extremely relevant period in jazz and new music history. In the paper, he spotlights the negative reception by the press, fueled by a racist perspective within the music journalism community as well as the negative perception of Black creative musicians in the United States. “Things have gotten a lot better,” he notes, “but we’re still working toward moving away from this monolithic ideal of what Black music is supposed to be.”
The Steve Lehman Trio will perform new material from Dialect Fluorescent live at the Atlas on Wednesday. As a musician who has devoted a lot of time and energy to the study of John Coltrane, he is especially excited to be performing in the city of Andrew White, the revered “keeper of the Trane.”
This young trio is pushing the music forward, endowed with formidable tutelage (Reid having apprenticed with Billy Higgins, and Brewer with Rodney Whitaker), advanced conceptions and a strong sense of how to build up from the cornerstones of history.