Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009) served noticed that everyone’s favorite up and coming alto saxophonist has come up and arrived. Now, Steve Lehman is poised to build his nascent legacy as an established artist, which makes the imminent follow-up to Travail all the more interesting. Dialect Fluorescent, as its called, abandons the enigmatic, spiritually defined octet of the prior record to explore his concepts as applied in a simpler, sax/bass/drums framework.
These concepts Lehman conceive for his music are very modern. A lot of very talented jazz musicians of his generation do the same, but Lehman does so without creating a hybrid of jazz with some other music form; he comes up with ideas seemingly out of nowhere but from his own imagination, rooted firmly in tradition, and the resulting sound can be describe as strange, eccentric, unique, or a number of other things, but it can also be identified as wholly jazz. Dialect Fluorescent uses a very tight integration with bass by Matt Brewer and drums by Damion Reid to make a rather uncommon approach to flow, where the cadence of beats and notes are put in odd places, against a backdrop of elliptical rhythmic patterns. In that respect, it’s akin to Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando, only sax-led.
It’s not just about how songs are composed and arranged, because Lehman owns a distinctive saxophone playing style. Derivative of bop, but also employing microtonal precepts and maintaining a hypersensitivity to the bass and drums, often becoming one with the rhythm section. There’s no rhythm section for the intro to “Allocentric,” where his resonance is so pure and precise as to sound a bit like a Moog synthesizer, playing odd tones that suggest he’s following some traditional Indian tonal system: not atonal, just exotic. He continues playing the strange notes into “Allocentric” proper, but the entry of Reid and Brewer changes the dynamic rhythm-wise and before long, Reid and Lehman are going in lock step on staggered beats matched to staggered notes. Other such instances of mind-blowing telepathy can be found on “Foster Brothers,” “Alloy” and Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.” The cagey funk construction—not the James Brown kind of funk, mind you—is amazing on “Fuma Rebel.”
And standards? Yes, he’s got some on this album. We mentioned “Moment’s Notice;” it’s not even recognizable at first unless you are paying close attention to Brewer’s bass line. That allows Lehman and Reid to go off into orbit, though the saxophonist never loses grasp of the melody, he’s just playing it at his own, varying pace. “Pure Imagination” is totally reconstructed at the ground level, leaving the task of maintaining the link to the theme to Lehman, who renders it in a gruffer enunciation to match the convulsions going on underneath. “Jeannine” is arranged in a more conventional way, but Lehman in his improvising stretches the very limits of tonality. As if to underscore the connection between jazz that’s come before to the 21st century jazz he’s playing, he closes out the album with a kinetic but straight-up account of Jackie McLean’s “Mister E.”
Lehman was a student of McLean and while studying music in graduate school, Lehman was more steeped in tradition than his classmates, who called him “Mr. Bebop” in jest. But the further back the rubber band is pulled back on a slingshot, the further the projectile when released. Steve Lehman has propelled past his peers precisely because he took the time to fully immerse himself in tradition first. And it shows on Dialect Fluorescent.
Dialect Fluorescent goes on sale March 27, by Pi Recordings.