Since bursting onto the international creative music scene in 2004 with Interface (Clean Feed 22) and Artificial Light (Fresh Sound 186), Steve Lehman has quickly established a reputation for creating cutting-edge music, both as a fiercely imaginative saxophonist and as a young visionary composer. Much has been made of Lehman’s tutelage under Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, as well as his more recent collaborations (both as side person and leader) with musicians associated with the M-Base school (Vijay Iyer, Liberty Ellman, and Jonathan Finlayson, most notably). But what emerges in Lehman’s music is a unique synthesis and transformation of the various aspects of his on-going study of music. The simple fact is that, at 28, Lehman has already laid down a musical gauntlet that very few modern improvisers are equipped to deal with. One is hard pressed to think of another saxophonist, at any age, capable of flourishing in bands led and co-led by Meshell Ndegeocello, Dave Burrell, Vijay Iyer, and Anthony Braxton; a composite context that requires a mastery of advanced experimental instrumental techniques, an ability to create explosive improvisations in the most highly structured and exigent of musical settings, and a deeply rooted rhythmic sense. Couple his prowess as a saxophonist with his current doctoral studies of composition and computer music at Columbia University in New York (under composers Tristan Murail and George Lewis), and it becomes clear that Lehman has arrived as a key figure in the contemporary music landscape.
But make no mistake; Lehman’s music is not about postmodern pastiche. And though he draws inspiration from a diverse set of musical sources, his music never fails to reveal his modernist commitment to innovation and progress through serious research and focused work. Nowhere is this made more apparent than on Manifold, his new quartet record for the Clean Feed label, featuring long-time collaborators Jonathan Finlayson (Trumpet), John Hebert (Bass), and Nasheet Waits (Drums). Much of the music on Manifold is representative of a new, highly structured approach to open improvisation, in which formalism, reflection, and extreme technical precision co-exist with spontaneity and real-time decision-making. The near-telepathic interaction of the four ensemble members underscores the crucial and fundamentally compositional nature of deciding who plays together. Throughout Manifold, Lehman, Finlayson, Waits, and Hebert demonstrate an uncanny ability to create bracingly original music in compositional contexts ranging from Dusk, the quartet’s powerful tribute to pianist/composer Andrew Hill; to Cloak and Dagger, Lehman’s rhythmically complex miniature; to Interface, a series of frameworks for open improvisation that call for the members of Lehman’s quartet to play with great rhythmic precision and formal nuance. Recorded live in 2007 as part of the Jazz ao Centro Festival in Coimbra, Portugal, Manifold is the third title in the JACC Series (established to document exceptional performances from the Jazz ao Centro Festival), which is produced by the Portuguese label Clean Feed. Knowing that Interface (recorded by Lehman’s Camouflage Trio with Mark Dresser and Pheeroan akLaff in 2004) was the first recording in the JACC series, one gets a good idea of the excitement that Lehman’s music has produced in Portugal and beyond. With Manifold Lehman continues to deliver on the promise of his early career and to assert the status bestowed upon him by The WIRE in 2004 as “the man to watch on the ever-evolving New York scene.”