Steve Lehman wants his music to groove without repetition. Given that groove often implies repetitive rhythms and riffs, that doesn't seem like an easy task, but the 25-year-old alto saxophonist is committed to finding that master groove with a minimum of structural redundancy. His bold new disc Artificial Light (Fresh Sound New Talent) indicates he's on the right track.
Much of Artificial Light unfolds like an elaborate musical treasure hunt filled with hidden jewels. Rhythm patterns that are rigid then punctured set the course against constantly evolving harmonic constructs. Lehman's alto and Mark Shim's tenor are paired up like adventurers exploring the daring soundscapes created by drummer Eric McPherson, bassist Drew Gress and vibraphonist Chris Dingman. Even though the disc contains provocative soloing from all the members, the disc suggests a composer preoccupied with form and structure.
That's certainly not the case with Lehman's other new disc, Interface (Clean Feed), a bristling free-jazz trio date with drummer Pheeroan akLaff and bassist Mark Dresser that emphasizes mood and textures more so than lofty extended forms. Recorded just months prior to Artificial Light, Interface is much more abstract, but as Lehman says the music on the trio date isn't as happenstance as it appears. "The trio record is really the manifestation of me wanting to get certain individuals together and writing music around that. I had to think about what would make the most sense, compositionally, to elicit the most interesting interactions."
Lehman's devilish composing and improving recalls the music of his two most significant mentors: Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton. Those invaluable apprenticeships buttressed with a master's degree in composition at Wesleyan and a teaching position at the Paris Conservatory helped developed a formidable voice that's uniquely his own. "I didn't want to set up this paradigm where I studied with these two guys and therefore my music becomes a mixture of their respective careers," Lehman says. "Both are definite influences, but I'm always looking for things that feel fresh, so it could be anything," citing underground hip-hop and electronica as touchstones as well. "It's OK to get ideas from other people. But I don't want to ape anybody, compositionally. I'd rather follow their examples in terms of innovation and individuality."