On Saturday, May 7, the Steve Lehman Octet will bring its spectral harmonies and cascading rhythms to the McGuire Theater. Lehman is a jazz stalwart, guided by algorithms and an abiding musical intuition which carried the Octet’s most recent release, Mise en Abîme, to the top spot on the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critic’s Poll. At the same time, the artist is keen to a relationship often in the periphery of the genre: jazz and hip-hop. On Thursday, May 5, Lehman will be joined by rapper/producer HPrizm (of abstract rap trio Antipop Consortium) to present a walking tour of the Walker galleries followed by a performance, giving guests the opportunity to see this complex relationship at play.
Communication between the two genres is a phone call often disconnected and redialed; jazz’s free authorship and hip-hop’s intertextuality have, historically, had a hard time meeting in the middle. ’90s Jazz-Rap gave recognition to the influence of the old on the new, but the constraints of sampling cut off spontaneity at the knees, leaving improvisation for only emcees. Jazz samples were truly that, a sample of what more jazz had to offer, and artists like Digable Planets and Guru, whose production made samples and live instrumentation indistinguishable, went silent before they could define just what more that was. On the other side, Miles Davis’ final record saw the 65-year old working with a 20-something hip-hop producer on “doo-bop,” a New Jack Swing–indebted flavor none were too eager to emulate. “Life’s a Bitch,” from Nas’s groundbreaking Illmatic, fades out on an understated trumpet solo by the emcee’s father (2:42), serving to only further illustrate the generational divide to be bridged.
As the years passed and rap began its era of commercial dominance, the paradigm was turned on its head. Rappers raised on jazz gave way to jazz players raised on rap. Robert Glasper and BADBADNOTGOOD were able to carve out their own niche, collaborating organically with emcees like DOOM, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg. Contemporary stars like Vijay Iyer have been open to collaboration, albeit a bit high-concept. Roy Ayers was even featured on a Tyler, the Creator song. Most prominent is the synthesis being explored by LA’s Brainfeeder: producer (and nephew of Alice Coltrane) Flying Lotus, funk bassist Thundercat, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose collaborations together and with celebrated artists like Kendrick Lamar serve to encourage the dissolution of these genre’s borders. While Washington’s sprawling The Epic placed fourth on NPR’s 2015 poll, Francis Davis took a critical tone in handing this designation out, unwilling to validate the sound’s freshness while recognizing that these malleable borders were bringing about changes not even he understood.
Lehman is still at the forefront, though, still topping polls, and his group’s employment of hip-hop isn’t all that subtle. Mise en Abîme transitions comfortably from a cerebral vibraphone solo into a riff on Camp Lo’s 1997 hit “Luchini,” and the Octet’s debut, 2009’s Travail, Transformation and Flow, concludes by covering a cut from GZA’s classic Liquid Swords. Tracks like these illuminate the visceral elements Lehman so adeptly balances with the intellectual. Regarding Antipop Consortium, Lehman once stated, “Part of what’s so compelling to me is the way that each MC establishes a distinctive and highly complex rhythmic logic while maintaining a profound connection to the underlying structure of the composition.” The same description could easily apply to Lehman’s own work.
For his part, HPrizm has always had one hand in the abstractions of jazz, be it organizing an entire collaborative album between Antipop and Matthew Shipp, forming an aptly named “Illtet” with poet Mike Ladd, Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, and Octet drummer Tyshawn Sorey, or improvising with Iyer. Lehman and HPrizm have been developing a collaboration for years, and their work with saxophonist Maciek Lassere and Senegalese emcee Bamar Ndoye, as Sélébéyone, premiered in France a year ago, with a full album to be released in the fall. Their performance in the Walker galleries on Thursday, to that end, will serve as a preview of not only their forthcoming works, but of what is possible when genre is put to the wayside and artists are left to simply, unabashedly create.