The work of young alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is a study in complexity and contrasts. “Study” is the operative word here. Lehman approaches his music as an intellectual—he’s a doctor fellow at Columbia University, after all—but he doesn’t show off. His compositions are asymmetrical—sections do not repeat, so toss the head-solo-solo-solo-head form out the window—and his playing is thoughtful and reserved. Still, he can find the groove.
Lehman is familiar to us through his work with the exciting bassless trio Fieldwork. On Meaning finds him in a more ambitious setting; his quintet includes trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The guys had a tough task here. Rhythmically and melodically, these are difficult tunes. Harmonically, they are often uncomfortable. Lehman does like his contrapuntal chords.
“Open Music,” the second tune, is a case in point. Sorey’s sticks skitter on the skins, the vibes ring out, and Lehman and Finlayson take turns blowing ascending phrases. It’s an odd little sketch, and yet it’s quite affecting. Lehman never gets overbearing; his strikes are surgical. Sorey and Dingman engage in some dramatic exchanges throughout the album, turning in some particularly well-synched work on “Curse Fraction” and “Check This Out.” We’re not sure what to make of “Great Plains of Algiers,” which is not so much a song as an idea. Low clangs resonate from the vibraphone, the sax and trumpet drone in unison, and that’s it. Apparently it has something to with “spectral harmony.” It might have been smarter to leave that one for the doctoral dissertation.