To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Sam Segal shares his perspective on last Saturday’s performance by the Steve Lehman Octet. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
On Saturday night in the McGuire Theater, alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman made his Minnesota debut as a bandleader, fronting an octet made up of some of the baddest and brightest in contemporary jazz. It is rare that a band arrives on the jazz scene with a concept as fully-formed and a sound as original as the Steve Lehman Octet has, noted Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither in his introduction. The brilliant, high-powered performance that the band delivered served as a strong testament to Bither’s words.
Glancing at Steve Lehman’s resume, you might imagine his music to sound oppressively academic. He received an M.A. in Composition from Wesleyan University, where he studied with avant-garde luminaries like Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. As a Fulbright Scholar in France, he researched the history of African-American experimental composers’ reception by French critics. He is also a noted scholar of Spectral Music, a movement of French composers that arose in the 1970s, which sought to utilize computer-generated representations of sound spectra as the primary tools for composition. Listening to a piece by Tristain Murail, the man with whom Lehman studied Spectral Music, can be a difficult, thrilling, and decidedly un-funky experience. Knowing all of this about Steve Lehman’s pedigree, some folks in the audience may have been surprised then to find themselves tapping their feet throughout the evening, maybe even feeling the urge to get out of their seats and groove. The Octet’s performance managed to marry the high-concepts of Lehman’s academic work with the visceral, bodily joys of jazz.
The group opened the evening with a piece entitled “Rudresh M,” a tribute to altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who graced the McGuire stage back in February with Rez Abbasi’s Invocation and his own Indo-Pak Coalition trio. Like Mahanthappa, Lehman’s alto attack was rapid and unrelenting, sounding like Charlie Parker filtered through the looking-glass of microtonality. On this song, and every other, drummer Tyshawn Sorey brought an unbelievable amount of energy and propulsive groove. He dropped on top of the Octet’s hypnotic spell with the furious insistence of a vintage U.K. Jungle break.
Lehman mentioned that the band hadn’t played together in this original configuration in two years, but they sounded as tight and focused as a group that had been touring for months. There were moments in the band’s second piece, “Alloy,” in which the horn section of Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and trombonist Tim Alrbright sounded as locked-in and punchy as one of Fela Kuti’s peak-era outfits.
Yet, lurking underneath was the ever-present dissonance of Chris Dingman’s vibraphone and the sneaky rhythms of Jose Davila’s tuba. These two elements lent the music a constant feeling of uneasiness that drifted between conscious and subconscious. The juxtaposition between the muddy texture of the vibes and tuba and the tight stabs of the horn section created a beautiful and menacing tension.
The highlight of the night was a tantalizingly short, unrecorded composition called “Rhythm of the Earth,” a piece that perfectly encapsulated the affable accessibility of Lehman’s experimentation. He began with an extended soprano solo, in which disjointed popping sounds alternated with breathy and delicate streams of ghost notes. Far from a mere demonstration of extended technique, the solo was as heartfelt as it was cerebral. Lehman reached his apex when he found a raw and dissonant combination of notes and began pounding on them adamantly. Then, in the most delightfully shocking mash-up of musical worlds, Sorey busted out a beat with a funkiness that can only be compared to Clyde Stubblefield’s most classic James Brown breaks. The rest of the band began to swirl wildly around Lehman’s sax line, locked into an off-kilter groove that built in intensity until it ended with crushing abruptness.