In following his muse down paths blazed by Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Andrew Hill and others of their ilk, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman committed many jazz crimes in crafting the visionary, critically lauded Travail, Transformation and Flow back in 2009. After following that up with a satisfying excursion down a trio path (Dialect Fluorescent (2012)), the cerebral, risk-taking composer and bandleader returns to the scene of the crime with Mise En Abîme.
The octet like none other returns intact for an encore, set for release June 24, 2014 by Pi Recordings. Building upon highly integrated spectral harmonies that was the bedrock for the brilliance of Travail, Mise En Abîme takes up music theories that would take up the entire chalkboard to sketch out, and applies them to music that’s strange but also strangely inviting.
Like the Big Bang, Mise En Abîme shoots further out from the same kernel of ideas; the songs’ already-esoteric centers become more elusive, the microtonality is taken up a notch while the low barrier between rhythm and harmony gets knocked down a notch.
The explosion of competing harmonies gets going immediately with “Segregated and Sequential,” which uses western structures and patterns but the tonal ecosystem that this song breathes within is from another planet. It’s like Sun Ra on steroids.”13 Colors” takes microtonal tuning further by deploying it between two, related motifs that oscillate between each other seemingly at random, and the prepared vibraphone by Chris Dingman adds another facet of the unusual temperament.
Like a Threadgill song, “Glass Enclosure Transcription” has restless rhythm, tuba from Zooid member Jose Davila and the other horns that interlock broadly around a circular pattern, the tuba sharing low-end space with bassist Drew Gress. “Beyond All Limits” works in that manner, too, except that the basic pattern is denser still.
On these and other tracks, drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s fractured funk gives dynamism to the compositions that lean just as much on him and Gress to propel the melodies as the five-man horn section of Lehman, Davila, Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Tim Albright (trombone) and Mark Shim (tenor sax). These performers are given a good amount of latitude, working off of cues or key changes in the songs and lending to the unpredictability of these songs, which, ultimately, unfold naturally.
Lehman’s live electronics adds another dimension, these otherworldly drones based on simple patterns that Lehman, the other horn players and Dingman negotiate around. Finlayson and Albright slide right into this alien vibe during “Autumn Interlude,” which soon makes way for a sax sparring match between Lehman and Shim. As elsewhere on this record, Lehman solos without regard to the Western 12-tone equal temperament, sounding closest to Rudresh Mahanthappa, but the Jackie McLean in him never disappears, either.
With all the ideas spilling out of this record, Lehman saves his most intriguing one for last. Though only two and a half minutes long, “Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription” reshapes a trio of Bud Powell compositions through the lens of Lehman’s shimmering spectral harmonics. It’s a barely-pursued avenue that’s worth of a whole album of exploration.
Mise En Abîme would be a stunning achievement for just about anybody else; for Steve Lehman, it’s just his still-evolving musical personality racing out beyond jazz’s frontiers and daring anyone to try and catch up. He’s a rare commodity who has both genuinely original, compelling ideas and the wherewithal to carry them out to their fullest potential.