So much of contemporary jazz has to do with balancing invention and reinvention, figuring out what remains relevant and generative about trends from the last fifty years while developing new systems that, if they don't necessarily push the genre forward, at least provide fertile ground for fresh exploration.
Dialect Fluorescent, the new album by the Steve Lehman Trio, is a good example of how that elusive balance can be negotiated. There’s a composition by John Coltrane (“Moment’s Notice”), one by Duke Pearson (“Jeannine”) and one by Jackie McLean (“Mr. E”). Lehman composed several other tunes using what’s known as spectral harmony, in which computer analysis assists in organizing harmonic material according to the prominent overtones of a sound, creating rich frameworks for microtonal harmonies according to certain frequency relationships.
Bringing in the Coltrane and McLean tunes, Lehman told the Advocate from an outdoor location in New York City (he lives in Brooklyn), underlines their ongoing influence on his own playing and compositions. “Across the board, they’re the ones who were more experimental and progressive,” Lehman said. “That’s a language that I view as very contemporary and active that informs everything I do.” Here, it’s Coltrane and McLean as ageless conceptualists, forward-thinking composers in their own right, whose music has a nearly unlimited, deep-seated potential for creating something progressive.
“We don’t look at it as a nostalgic thing, dutiful, paying homage, and so on,” Lehman said. “We just wanted an exciting platform for contemporary music.”
Over the years, Lehman, a Wesleyan grad and former Hartford resident, has performed and recorded with duos, trios, quintets and octets, either with his own groups or as a sideman. On a recent octet recording, Travail, Transformation and Flow, Lehman pioneered the use of spectral harmony in a jazz framework. “Those octet pieces ended up being more a showcase for again how to compose for an eight-piece group that create dynamic settings for improvisation,” Lehman said. “But there was definitely more emphasis on the compositional.” Still, Lehman explained, on the octet recording, “all the music came to life specifically because of the eight musicians that played that music and were able to internalize that music.”
With the trio album, the focus on composition remained just as crucial, but Lehman’s own saxophone playing emerged as a greater influence on its overall shape. And while spectral harmony informed many of the compositional choices on Dialect Fluorescent, Lehman said he’s never felt pinned down to any particular compositional system. “It’s not a dogma,” he said, “it’s part of the tool-kit. You want to use stuff that’s appropriate to the context.”
“It’s hard without a chordal instrument to have [spectral harmony] very present on the surface of the music,” Lehman said. “‘Allocentric’ basically is oriented around three scales derived from spectral chords. They end up providing three different reservoirs of pitch material for the tunes, and if anything jumps out it is that, when you derive chords, you have chords that are tuned to the nearest quarter tone, sort of like a dominant seventh. You end up with a collection of pitches, some of which are tempered [i.e. tones normally found on a piano keyboard] and some that are quarter-toned [a pitch that falls halfway between two piano keys].”
After getting familiar with most of the repertoire on tour in Europe and the U.S., the trio recorded Dialect Fluorescent in late August of 2011, in a single day in the studio. They’ll perform much of the material at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 on April 13.
“I’ve certainly done recordings where the emphasis was in the moment, on what you can bring to a setting,” Lehman said. “But this was a mixture of material that we had internalized. It’s meant to highlight our dynamic as a trio as a group.”
What Lehman finds most advantageous about the trio format, he said, has more to do with the specific players -- Damion Reid on drums and Matthew Brewer on bass -- than anything inherent in the format itself. “That ends up being one of the most important decisions I make,” Lehman said. “I really view it as a compositional decision, figuring out who I’m going to play with.” Without a chordal instrument, it’s possible to overplay the rhythmic element and a greater responsibility on each of the three players to articulate the harmonic piece (or at least to evoke it as much as possible).
“That’s a standard for any chordless trio,” Lehman said. “But it’s also more responsibility on me to try to find different ways to present the three of us so that it doesn’t get repetitive, so that you aren’t inundated with rhythmic stuff.” This led Lehman to play around with texture; on Dialect Fluorescent, there are tunes that begin with Lehman alone; others, like “Moment’s Notice,” start with saxophone and bass playing the structure of the piece.
For Lehman, however, composing is an ongoing transaction of information, a reciprocal back-and-forth between himself and the players. “I work on ideas by myself, then talk to people I’m collaborating with to find out what works, what seems feasible,” he said. “I count on getting really valuable feedback to get my music better than I could do it myself. It’s this ongoing thing.” By the time the trio gets to the bandstand, three or four cycles of composition and recomposition have already taken place.
“You find out how the music you’ve worked on takes shape,” Lehman said. “It’s sort of several layers deep at that point... Thinking about the players you’re working with, all of the pieces on the trio album, the most important thing is how they create a really stimulating setting for improvisation. The melodic and harmonic material is all meant to be in service for creating a space for improvisation. If I was more interested in counterpoint or melody, I’d be in the wrong musical idiom. That’s what I’m really passionate about.”
Steve Lehman Trio, April 13, 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., $12-$18, Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 785-0468, firehouse12.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times