The picture most often drawn of the modern jazz landscape is one of schism, a split between heart and head. On the one hand are the traditionalists, keeping the flame of swing and standards burning; on the other the intellectuals, rejoicing in complexity, hybridity, the shock of the new. On his new trio CD, saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman makes a spirited argument against the artificiality of that supposed divide, offering a passionate set that bridges fervid emotion and stunning complexity.
Given his studies with avant-gardists like Anthony Braxton and Tristan Murail, his explorations of little-understood theoretical constructs like spectral harmony, his use of higher-order rhythms and melodies seemingly penned on graph paper, Lehman could be seen as the poster child for the intellectual-jazz set.
That ferocious curiosity and rhythmic rigor are fully on display here, especially on the leader’s originals. From the tart lurch of “Allocentric” to the darting staccato of “Foster Brothers,” the serpentine coils of “Alloy” to the elusive pathways of “Fumba Rebel,” bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid prove superbly receptive to Lehman’s liquid-steel volleys.
Dialect Fluorescent, however, finds Lehman taking the unexpected step of tackling repertoire by forebears like John Coltrane, Duke Pearson and another former mentor, Jackie McLean, and even—it still feels awkward to write this is reference to a Lehman CD—a Hollywood tune. That last number, a menacingly hued refraction of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” evokes the Ornette Coleman of “Lonely Woman” at least as much as it does Willy Wonka’s wistful roaming through his chocolate wonderland. Atop the tempestuous bed laid down by Brewer and Reid, Lehman’s always sinuous alto gains a gut-level rasp, exploring the darker side of living within one’s own head, no matter how candy-coated.
Throughout the disc, Lehman presents a decidedly modernist take on the pianoless sax trio. Like an architect rendering classic structural elements in oblique, abstracted fashion, this trio doesn’t forsake the trappings of bop but renders them with clean lines, acute angles and transformative distortions.
Both McLean’s “Mr. E” and Pearson’s “Jeannine” are approached as severe swing. In their laser-sharp focus on the essential elements, these performances are minimalistic; at the same time, there’s an expansiveness in the way Lehman’s microtonal agility delves into their hidden crevices, or the way in which Brewer and Reid filigree their rhythmic concentration.
It takes some time for the trio to actually state the familiar head of Trane’s “Moment’s Notice,” but again it would be reductionist to call Lehman’s approach to the piece a “deconstruction.” He and Brewer begin in duo, the bassist’s robust elasticity and Lehman’s spry, musing playfulness hinting at the tune, pulling the melody like taffy, watching it almost cohere before stretching it apart again. Reid eventually enters with avalanching momentum, and when the theme finally does burst forth in its full glory in the track’s final moments, it feels like it has been refined from their improvisations rather than being the basis of them.
When a time-worn standard can be made to seem like an inspired discovery, it’s hard to dismiss it as academic gamesmanship. Instead, Dialect Fluorescent feels like the growth of a rich language via new vocabulary and broadened parameters—(not so) arguably, the same basic envelope-pushing engaged in by the likes of Coltrane and McLean. In the process, and without succumbing to didacticism, Lehman makes the argument that by reimagining the work of his predecessors in language born of his own time and circumstances, he’s honoring the “tradition” of jazz in ways that nostalgists fail to appreciate.