by Piotr Michalowski
There are days when it seems that modernism and its descendants have become exhausted and that the arts can strive only to reinvent the past. That is certainly the impression one gets from the work of some of the more publicly prominent jazz players. But the contemporary music scene is filled with original artists who are expanding the horizons of the music, erasing convenient descriptive boundaries, and creating new sonic worlds. Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is one such musician. He sounds like no one else; his uniqueness comes from a well-thought-out program of study and research and from a deep love of the jazz and modern classical traditions.
Because he is well-educated, even though many of today's musicians come from university backgrounds, Lehman is often described as studious. He began his studies with the famed alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, whose hard-driving, somewhat acerbic tone and slightly high pitch have left a mark on Lehman's approach to the instrument. Lehman emerged from McLean's tutelage with a deep respect for the jazz tradition, an impressive saxophone technique, well-developed analytical and compositional skills, and a restless desire to seek new expressive means. He went on to study with the two most vibrant visionary modernists in jazz, Anthony Braxton and George Lewis, while at the same time exploring the world of contemporary classical composition.
Over a decade ago, he became interested in spectral composition and eventually began to study at Columbia with one of the founders of the compositional trend, Tristan Murail. Spectral concepts are based on modern mathematical and instrumental analyses of the sound spectrum, but the roots of the attitude towards music go way back into the twentieth century, to the work of composers such as Edgard Varese, or, more recently, Karlheinz Stockhausen, most notably his work Stimmung. The spectralists seek to analyze the components of each sound, which is made up of individual partials (periodic waves), and to utilize this knowledge in the creation of melody and
harmony. As Lehman once explained it, "one could perhaps say that spectral music is largely concerned with the project of using timbre and the physical properties of acoustics as models for a variety of compositional technique."
In 2009 Lehman offered the fullest realization of his spectral work on the octet album Travail, Transformation, and Flow. Here his compositions use timbre, harmony, melody, and rhythm as equal elements, not as layers, and individual improvisation blends with the vibration of the ensemble. The harmonic rhythm is often derived from non-jazz sources, and it is rarely predictable, with repetition skipping into something else at every turn. Sound is as important as melody, with the overtones of instruments blending in unique ways.
The Steve Lehman Octet plays at the U-M's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on November 9.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]