by Ian Mann
January 12, 2020
The performances are tight and focused and the interaction between the musicians is sharp and consistently intelligent, while the quality of the playing is exceptional throughout.
Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn
“The People I Love”
(Pi Recordings PI82)
Steve Lehman – alto saxophone, Matt Brewer – double bass, Damion Reid – drums,
Craig Taborn - piano
Born in New York City in 1978, but now resident in Los Angeles, Steve Lehman is an American alto saxophonist, composer, academic and educator. He works across a range of musical idioms, but is best known as a jazz performer and as a composer for contemporary classical ensembles, ranging from chamber groups to full orchestra.
Lehman studied under the great Anthony Braxton, arguably his key influence, and also with the late alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. He holds an M.A. in composition and in his role as an academic he has published papers and delivered lectures on various aspects of music theory and practice. He is currently a Professor of Music at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.
As a jazz saxophonist Lehman released his first recording as a leader in 2004. “Artificial Light” was a quintet session featuring some of the leading musicians on the New York jazz scene. Lehman has since released a further nine albums (“The People I Love” represents his tenth) as a leader in a variety of formats ranging from trio to octet, and with the music sometimes incorporating elements ranging from electronica to world music to hiphop.
Lehman has brought his critically acclaimed octet to tour in the UK on a number of occasions, but unfortunately I was unable to make any of the gigs. My only exposure to his playing in a live setting was at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he appeared with the co-operative trio Fieldwork, featuring pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, a long term Lehman collaborator. My account of Fieldwork’s performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Lehman’s trio featuring bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid first appeared on the 2012 trio set “Dialect Fluorescent”. For this latest recording the group is supplemented by the addition of pianist Craig Taborn, one of the USA’s most accomplished and influential keyboard players.
Taborn, born in 1970, is a highly accomplished acoustic pianist who has released solo piano recordings on the prestigious ECM label. He is also an innovative player of electric keyboards, notably Fender Rhodes, organ and synthesiser. His versatility has made him an in demand sideman in a variety of jazz contexts and his list of credits is both expansive and impressive, very much a ‘who’s who’ of contemporary American jazz. Since 1994 he has released eleven albums as a leader in formats ranging through solo piano, duo, trio and quartet.
“The People I Love” is an all acoustic recording that features Taborn playing the appropriate version of his chosen instrument. For Lehman the album represents something of a return to his acoustic jazz roots following his experiments with electronics, hip hop and world music on recent recording such as 2016’s “Selebeyone”.
The title of the new album comes from a quote by the late, great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, which is reproduced on the album packaging. The programme includes a mix of Lehman’s original compositions plus a handful of pieces from the 1990s by Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and Kenny Kirkland that Lehman describes as “alternative standards”. The saxophonist’s love of electronic music finds expression via an acoustic arrangement of “qPlay”, a track by the British electronic dance music duo Autechre.
The composed items are complemented by three brief saxophone and piano duets, “Prelude”, “Interlude” and “Postlude”, jointly credited to Lehman and Taborn and presumably freely improvised.
Lasting a little under two minutes “Prelude” introduces the album, acting as a kind of overture or musical ‘amuse bouche’. Lehman’s piping alto combines effectively with Taborn’s thoughtful, translucent acoustic piano.
This gentle improvised curtain raiser paves the way for the more robust Lehman composition “Ih Calam & Ynnus”. This is introduced by Taborn at the piano, but soon brings Brewer and Reid into the fold. The leader’s garrulous alto soars above the complex rhythmic patterns generated by his colleagues, with Taborn’s pounding piano motifs at the core of the piece. The pianist finally gets the chance to cut loose, the still muscular left hand rhythms now complemented by tumbling right hand runs, all steeped in Taborn’s love for the music of Cecil Taylor. There’s also room for a feature from the agile bassist Brewer. This is music that is intense but not inaccessible, complex but viscerally invigorating.
Also by Lehman “Curse Fraction”, originally recorded on his 2007 quintet album “On Meaning”, presents a slightly less frenetic side of the band with Lehman’s terse alto sketching melodic phrases above subtly shifting rhythms. Following the leader’s opening statement Taborn is given the opportunity to stretch out with a solo that positively sparkles via its darting melodic phrases and scurrying runs. With Lehman’s return the music becomes more animated as the saxophonist and the pianist engage in a thrilling exchange of ideas. Taborn temporarily drops out as Lehman enters into a vigorous debate with Reid and Brewer.
Originally from Rochdale the duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth have been making music as Autechre since 1987, releasing thirteen albums to date. “qPlay” appears on their tenth, 2010’s “Oversteps”. I’m afraid I have to admit to being previously unfamiliar with their work. This acoustic arrangement is introduced by the echoing chimes of Taborn’s piano chording. Lehman subsequently takes up the melody on alto sax but the piece is really a feature for the rhythm section, and particularly the excellent Reid, as they approximate the sounds of the electronic beats acoustically. The results are undeniably impressive.
Lasting a little over a minute “Interlude” is the second of the Lehman / Taborn improvisations, a second charming “instant composition” featuring the contrasting sounds of Lehman’s woozy tenor sax and Taborn’s solemn piano chording. To these ears there was evidence of a sly sense of musical humour that saw me breaking into a wry smile.
“A Shifting Design”, written by guitarist and composer Kurt Rosenwinkel, lives up to its title. Taborn is absent for this edgy, urgent trio exploration that sees the buzz of Lehman’s alto underpinned by the frenetically shifting rhythms of Brewer and Reid. It’s an impressive trio tour de force, with a particularly explosive, virtuoso performance from Reid.
Brewer introduces Lehman’s composition “Beyond All Limits” with an impressive, and deeply resonant, passage of unaccompanied double bass. Eventually he sets up the groove that helps to fuel the piece, with Reid joining in to provide the momentum behind Lehman’s garrulous multiphonics.
The rhythms laid down by Brewer and Reid are far from one dimensional. The pair respond with alacrity to Lehman’s improvisations, the pulses and grooves constantly evolving and mutating. Taborn then takes over with a typically exciting piano solo, his dizzying runs evoking similarly impressive responses from the rhythm section. Lehman then erupts again on alto, with some of his most animated playing of the set matched by the volcanic roiling of bass and drums. Like the earlier “Ih Calam & Ynnus” this is a dynamic performance that sweeps the listener along in its wake. The excitement that the players clearly felt can be heard in the studio chatter preserved at the end of the take.
There’s little let up in the intensity on the segue of Lehman’s “Echoes” and drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’ “The Impaler”. The leader’s alto bites incisively, answered by Taborn’s mercurial pianistics.
As befits a drummer composed piece there’s another virtuoso performance from the busy Reid, who again features prominently.
The final composition is “Chance”, by the late, great pianist Kenny Kirkland. Kirkland’s jazz waltz is the nearest that this album gets to a true ballad performance as Lehman probes gently but searchingly, accompanied at first just by Brewer’s resonant double bass. Piano and brushed drums are then added to the equation with Taborn delivering a magical solo that combines flowing lyricism with gimlet eyed intelligence. He then hands back to Lehman once more, who this time probes more deeply and darkly. There’s an austere beauty about this performance that can’t fail to charm the listener.
The album concludes with “Postlude”, a brief but animated conversation between the leader and his illustrious guest.
I received my copy of this disc from Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club, who knows Lehman personally, and Tyshawn Sorey too. I’m grateful to Lynne for loaning the album to me because it really is quite special.
Much has been made of Lehman’s music being intellectual, complex and academic, but although “The People I Love” isn’t exactly easy listening, it’s hardly a forbidding, cacophonous racket either.
It may feature little (probably none) conventional 4/4 swing but it remains eminently accessible and listenable for all its complexities. Pieces like “Ih Calam & Ynnus” and “Beyond All Limits” are genuinely exciting, musical white knuckle rides featuring some brilliant and wildly exciting playing. “Chance” exhibits a chilly beauty and the three alto sax / piano miniatures are captivating, with their brevity ensuring that they never outstay their welcome, I even found a dash of humour in there, too. All of the performances are thoroughly absorbing with Taborn fitting in superbly with the core trio. The recording is a welcome reminder of just how brilliant and inventive an acoustic pianist he is.
At around the forty minute mark this is a concise album by modern standards but this ensures that there’s no flab on the recording. The performances are tight and focused and the interaction between the musicians is sharp and consistently intelligent, while the quality of the playing is exceptional throughout.
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