Steve Lehman Octet

Travail, Transformation, and Flow
Pi Records P130

James Carney Group

Ways & Means

Songlines SGL SA 1580-2

At least since the flexibility of a little big band was demonstrated in Miles Davis’ 1949 Birth of the Cool sessions musicians have utilized that formation when they want to expand their compositional reach without getting involved in the sometimes ponderous arrangements needed for an official big band.

Two stellar examples of the adaptable colors and rhythms available from seven- or eight-piece bands are these CDs by New York-based improvisers. Although both impressively extend sonic visions through the solos of some of Manhattan’s top players and crafty arrangements, overall alto saxophonist Steve Lehman’s Travail, Transformation, and Flow has the edge. Concerned with displaying the nuanced harmonics and overtones available from an assimilation of spectral music, the freshness of his arrangements and compositions trumps keyboardist James Carney’s scores on Ways & Means. Not that Carney’s conceptions are anyway second rate. It’s just that the compositions are shaped and performed in a contemporary jazz fashion in such a way that the results are expected and almost too familiar. You can almost see the parts clank and shudder into place. Perhaps “see” is the key word here as well, since Carney describes the Chamber Music America-commissioned Ways & Means as designed to be a movie in sound.

Perhaps then “Legal Action”, which is set up as a double concerto for tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and trumpeter Ralph Alessi should be pictured as one of those buddy flicks. Certainly from the first, the trumpeter’s repeated grace notes and rubato harmonies stay close to the slide-slipping split tones from the tenor saxophonist. Additionally, while neither soloist is particularly atonal, the rhythm section, abetted by Carney’s synthesizer buzzes, warrants that the melody remains chromatic during this cinematic intermezzo. Eventually the piece climaxes when Carney’ piano adds choruses of dynamic cadences and note clusters. Speeding up his comping, the pianist meets echoing trumpet bites head on, then wraps up the narrative with sliding key emphasis.

This innate lyricism – the musical equivalent of Technicolor perhaps – floats through nearly all of the CD’s nine selections, with churning horn parts often layered on top of bouncing piano harmonies. The languid “Squatters” for instance, exposes a different style of sonic character development with percussive piano patterns succeeded by quivering electric piano throbs – also from Carney – eventually making way for Peter Epstein’s glossy soprano saxophone tongue flutters. Again while Chris Lightcap’s walking bas and Mark Ferber’s drums combine to goose the tempo from adagio to andante, Epstein appears unperturbed. His timbres turn repetitive, but not dissonant. Josh Roseman’s uncharacteristically glossy trombone slurs surmount the other horns’ harmonies in the tune’s final variation, confirming the swing feeling of the piece – and Carney’s compositional smarts.

If Ways & Means reflects Carney’s background scorning films, then Travail, Transformation, and Flow works from Lehman’s fascination with the physics of sound. The saxophonist, who teaches in New York’s Columbia University’s music department, uses his extensive formal background to divide particularized tones among the eight musicians for harmonic distinctiveness. While computer analysis is often used to assign each instrument’s microtonal spots in the arrangement, happily this doesn’t produce a domineering formalism in the sounds from the ensemble and/or soloists. One overriding leitmotif is the chiming percussiveness of Chris Dingman’s vibes which make their presence felt on nearly every track.

Furthermore a tune such as “Waves”, with its thick percussive rhythms and quivering broken-octave harmonies, is as much shaped by solos as spectralism. While the tonality of the off-kilter, four-horn harmonies that abut clattering bells plus pops and drags from percussionist Tyshawn Sorey may have a technical definition, the piece progresses as much due to

Lehman’s downward tongue fluttering on alto saxophone and Jonathan Finlayson’s distant trumpet tattoos.

Heretical as it may sound conceptually, with committed soloists playing their personal best, “Alloy” – which is described as explicitly less spectral than “Waves” – doesn’t sound that far off from more technical pieces. Polyphony displayed on “Alloy” is as impressive; so are the individual interpolations from sprinkled vibraphone textures, low-pitched tuba burps from Jose Davilia and grace notes from trombonist Tim Albright. Eventually when Lehman’s sharpened alto tone spins out a raunchy vamp, doubled by Mark Shim’s tenor saxophone and an adagio trumpet flourish, melody overcomes methodology.

Additionally, “No Neighborhood Rough Enough”, which modulates through swelling spectral harmonies, may line up as individual parts and verses are fit together with microtonal precision. Yet Drew Gress’s floating bass line, Dingman’s clanking vibe resonation and horn solos predominate. After honking in the exposition, Shim’s sprawling, free-form sax vibrations follow their own logic and easily meld with the trumpeter’s repeated grace notes.

Travail, Transformation, and Flow is memorable because Lehman has managed to wedge an academic concept within a performance of high-class composition and improvisation without flaunting his technical game plan. Ways & Means is also notable. But despite the high level of soloing, its cinematic output comes secondary to Lehman’s tech strategy. That’s because like the whir of a projector in an otherwise hushed movie theatre, Carey’s compositional mechanics are a little too obvious.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Travail: 1. Echoes 2. RudreshM 2. As Things Change (I Remain the Same) 4. Dub 5. Alloy 6. Waves 7. No Neighborhood Rough Enough 8. Living in the World Today

Personnel: Travail: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet); Tim Albright (trombone); Jose Davila (tuba); Steve Lehman (alto saxophone); Mark Shim (tenor saxophone); Chris Dingman (vibraphone); Drew Gress (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums)

Track Listing: Ways: 1. Nefarious Notions 2. Squatters 3. Champion of Honesty 4. Onondaga 5. The Business End 6. Legal Action 7. Fallout 8. Pow Wow 9. Gargoyles

Personnel: Ways: Ralph Alessi (trumpet); Josh Roseman (trombone); Peter Epstein (soprano and alto saxophones); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); James Carney (acoustic and electric pianos, analog synthesizer and glockenspiel); Chris Lightcap (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums)