Steve Lehman Trio

Dialect Fluorescent
Pi Records Pi42

Sandro Satta/Roberto Bellatalla/Fabrizio Spera

Re-Union

Rudi Records RRJ 1004

Up-ending conventional shibboleths are the two trios here – one younger and American, the second Italian and a little older – with differing takes on the improvised tradition. New York-based alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, usually committed to his own spiky, near-avant compositions, has recorded a disc with his working trio that mixes his lines with classics from the likes of Duke Pearson and John Coltrane. Conversely, the tunes played by Roman alto saxophonist Sandro Satta and his co-op trio are original compositions which in the main relate to the on-going Free Jazz tradition. What is contemporary and what is retrospective are the questions raised by these CDs

Lehman for instance, who sometimes uses computer-driven models for improvisation and who has worked with stylist as different as pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, is no rote re-creator. The four so-called covers here are played differently than they would be at a neo-con session and were chosen to complement his five originals. Additionally, Lehman and his sidemen, drummer Damion Reid who has worked with trumpeter Terence Blanchard; and bassist Matt Brewer, who has recorded with saxophonist Greg Osby; are familiar enough with each other’s attributes after five years of touring, so that the parts fit together seamlessly.

An academic like Lehman, Satta, recorded his band at a Roman Jazz festival. He has worked in trumpeter Pino Minafra’s and trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini’s bands, while bassist Roberto Bellatalla has seconded stylists like saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Drummer Fabrizio Spera has recorded with pianist Alberto Braida plus saxophonist John Butcher.

These associations are obvious in the freer orientation of this trio, but that doesn’t mean the three are adverse to more tradition-oriented material as well. By its title alone, “Walkies”, which is based around Bellatalla’s powerful string motions, is as groove-oriented as any Hard Bop piece. With regularly spaced drum beats appended to double bass walking, space is opened up for tongue twisting and pressurized timbres from Satta that just skirt altissimo; and which are corkscrewed into an evocative narrative by the finale. As the saxophonists holds the line, the bassist and drummer mutate the theme underneath.

At different junctures during the six-track recital, the trio also slyly approaches the balladic form but never quite connects to it. Still the saxophonist’s cornucopia-wide vibrato, a sul tasto bass line and Spear’s rolls and pops often meld in sympathy. Yet even at those points, an outright commitment to freer expression means that sequences are usually deconstructed before they end.

More characteristic are tracks such as “Light Lions” and “Estremo Est”. On the former the alto man expresses his admiration for the likes of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy with obbligato emphasis, dog-whistle-like squeals and eventually machine-gun-bullet-like split tones. With broken-chord support the bassist emphasizes tremolo patterns and the drummer staccato percussion prods that are divided between rim shots and bell ringing. Isolating timbres and blowing through different parts of his horn on “Estremo Est” and elsewhere, Satta’s slides, sluices and triple tonguing put individual sections of a tune through microscopic experimentation. For instance during “Estremo Est”, he moves from spetrofluctuation and tongue stuttering to a slow-paced connective line that soon involves the other players.

If the Italians are cohesive in their playing, then the Lehman three are practically in each other’s pockets in more ways than one. Look at the verve with which they practically recompose the usually bathetic “Pure Imagination”. With an exposition consisting of harsh reed tonguing, double-stopped bass lines and percussion ratamacues, they play with, reconstruct and toughen the melody, so that when the head finally appears it fits logically. “Central Park West”, one of Trane’s most covered tunes, is a showcased for Lehman, who plays in a lower register than usual, reconfiguring the splayed and pressurized look at standards suggested by Coleman with a variant of Coltrane’s sheets of sound. After identifying and repeating the head, he just stops. As for the instantly recognizable melody of Pearson’s “Jeannine”, the saxophonist manages to pull off the near-impossible, recreating the theme in sharp high-gear mode without carving out its essential prettiness. Keeping faith with the original are Reid’s rim shots and Brewer’s walking pumps.

As for Lehman’s own compositions, they’re anything but an afterthought here. At the same time several appear designed to show off Brewer’s skills, although everyone has enough space to blow. Heavy in intonation, following a tongue-fluttering, slurping and aleatoric a capella prologue from Lehman, “Allocentric” revolves around Reid’s bass drum thumps, cymbal swishes and cascading power. “Alloy” comes complete with a Bird-lite alto solo, lilting and tapping drum beats, some slap bass and a characteristic and satisfying up-tempo conclusion.

There’s also “Foster Brothers” – an indicative title – which confirms that Lehman can compose a funky line if he chooses. Buttressed by drum splatters and wooden drags, the saxophonist constructs a solo of constant, juddering sturdiness.

With both CDs high quality, the initial contemporary/retrospective questions may be answered – or they may not have to be.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dialect: 1. Allocentric (Intro) 2. Allocentric 3. Moments’ Notice 4. Foster Brothers 5. Jeannine 6. Alloy 7. Pure Imagination 8. Fumba Rebe 9. Mr. E

Personnel: Dialect: Steve Lehman (alto saxophone); Matt Brewer (bass) and Damion Reid (drums)

Track Listing: Re-Union: 1. Light Lions 2. Aria 3. All Hostages 4. Walkies 5. Estremo Est 6. Sambuco

Personnel: Re-Union: Sandro Satta (alto saxophone); Roberto Bellatalla (bass) and Fabrizio Spera (drums)