Jazz studies have come far in the century that separates young Louis Armstrong picking up the cornet at the New Orleans “waif’s home” from today’s graduate music programs at major universities. What was once a folk music has become the subject of academic research and pedagogy, with classrooms taking the place of long apprenticeships, strings of one-nighters in clubs around the country, and all-night jam sessions. Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is one such savvy, university-trained musician.
Lehman studied with two of the most cerebral jazz musician-professors, Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan and George Lewis at Columbia University, but also learned from the great bop saxophonist-turned-teacher Jackie McLean and from various contemporary classical composers. With doctorate in hand, he went to France on a Fulbright scholarship, won prestigious awards, and became a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. He has written scholarly articles on musical composition, pedagogy, and history; lectured at universities and music laboratories in the U.S. and Europe; and is recognized in jazz as well as contemporary classical circles as a busy musician. His latest adventure, only three years old, is seemingly unexpected from a refined academic: a rapping ensemble named Selebeyone.
Selebeyone (“intersection”) is described as “a collaborative project that draws from Senegalese Rap, French Spectral Music, Modern Jazz, Underground Hip-Hop, Interactive Electronics, and beyond.” This is an ambitious program, to be sure. In the past, some rappers have added jazz solos or sampled various recordings as part of their eclectic bag of tricks, while others have been more involved with the jazz scene. Lehman and his companions go beyond this, heeding the call of earlier pioneers in the blending of jazz and modern African American popular music such as Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, who did not simply borrow elements to enhance their chosen music but sought to create a new synthesis of forms. The front line of Selebeyone consists of two saxophonists, Lehman and his French onetime student Maciek Lasserre, working in tandem with two rappers, Gaston Bandimic (in the Senegalese Wolof language) and Hprizm (in English).
This is not a scatological, preening, macho parody of rap, but a sophisticated poetic expression, charged with deep political, psychological, and emotional statements. The intercontinental dialog between the American Hprizm, aka High Priest of the Antipop Consortium, and Bandimic, a Senegalese artist who adheres to the mystical and contemplative Sufi form of Islam, is surrounded by ever-changing beats, some in complex meters, and by the swirling sounds of acoustic and electronic instruments. Lehman’s harmonically and melodically complex saxophone patterns ride on the rhythms, their tonal edge retaining the memory of Jackie McLean’s edgy bluesy timbre.
Selebeyone will be presented by UMS at 9 p.m. on March 17 at El Club in Detroit.