Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman has a busy year ahead of him. In addition to touring with his octet, which performs at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, November 8th, Steve will be composing a commissioned work for the PRISM Saxophone quartet, making his West Coast debut with his trio, and working with MC and electronic experimentalist HPRIZM as part of the Bud Powell/Thelonious Monk project, alongside Wadada Leo Smith, David Virelles, and Emmanuel Pidre.
We’re pleased to welcome Steve back to our stage this weekend, and caught up with him by phone to learn a bit more about his recent musical pursuits and what he’ll have in store on Friday.
The Jazz Gallery: Much has been made about your exploration of spectral harmony, particularly in the octet setting. Have you encountered any common misconceptions about this approach to composition and dealing with sound?
Steve Lehman: Not really, mostly because it’s a specialized area of music, which isn’t a good or bad thing—even the term spectral music is a little specialized. I don’t know so much about misconceptions because it’s new, to a certain extent, to a lot of people who are engaged with the jazz community, whether they be listeners or musicians. Once in a while, you’ll come across somebody suspicious about the term, like it’s supposed to be some magical way of working with harmony that should sound totally different; you’ll hear a critic or a listener say, “I don’t hear anything special.”
I think that’s good! Whether I’m using spectral techniques or not, at the end of the day, the most important thing is if it sounds special and like something unique, something people can get excited about. That’s the most important thing, whether there are spectral techniques or not.
In a way, as I’ve said, I don’t really feel like it’s such a divergence from the history of the music, especially when I think about somebody like Charlie Parker making plans to study with Edgar Varèse in Paris. It’s not the same thing—I’m not Charlie Parker by any stretch of the imagination—but Varèse is often thought of as a kind of proto-spectral composer. That’s an important precedent, something I look at and think, ‘It’s not something so unusual.”
TJG: In broad terms, how has your new music for the octet departed from or extended the sonic explorations you documented on the last record?
SL: I think it’s an extension of it more so than a departure, mostly because it’s the exact same personnel. That is going to define the music more than anything—even more than anything I write. So, in that way it’ll be an extension of our work together. In terms of the compositional material, I’ve done a few things to try to force myself to do something that’s new and to challenge and stretch myself, like adding some live electronics on some pieces and working on some pieces with a vibraphone that’s been retuned. Those are the kind of things that I thought would be helpful to push me into a new space.
I can’t reinvent myself every 3 or 5 years; I can think of some people who can, but I’m not one of those people, so it’s really about reinforcing things and making incremental progress and putting myself in situations where I can discover some new things as a player and as a composer.
Tyshawn Sorey is also conceiving of the drum set in a different way for this book of music, so hopefully all of that will represent a sort of expansion of what we’ve been doing together.
TJG: Could you say a bit more about Tyshawn’s approach to your music?
SL: Sure. Right now, he has a kit that’s set up where it’s all bass drum, some specific cymbals, and the rest is all snare drums: piccolo, medium, and baritone snare, which is comparable to a tenor drum somewhat. I think—well, you have to ask him for what he’s going for as a player—the different timbres he’s going to be able to get is something exciting that will play directly into the music. Chris Dave is another person who’s worked with setups without toms and gotten a different sort of palette, so I think Tyshawn may in some ways be thinking along those lines.
TJG: Could you briefly comment on the influence of musicians like Harry Partch and Eddie Harris on your approach to composition? In a recent social media post, you mentioned your decision to “address the challenge of Partch and Harris’s music (in some small way)” by dealing with re-tuned vibraphone bars.
SL: Harry Partch is an American composer who somewhat famously built a lot of his own instruments according to his own specifications of tuning, and Eddie Harris pioneered the use of electronics, most notably electronic woodwind instruments. I’m not, as I’ve said, an Eddie Harris devotee or Harry Partch devotee, but that sort of historic precedent is something that I think any serious musician, serious improviser, or serious composer is forced to reflect on at some level—the actual tools we use, whether that be a saxophone, or a piano, or a laptop, or what have you—and pause for a second and think about what the implications of that are, in terms of inheriting an instrument that was as created by someone else and is part of the overlapping cultures that surround us.
Sometimes that’s fine and there’s no problem: you take an instrument and make it your own—there’s no shortage of people doing that. In other cases, you need to step outside that and conceive of the instrument itself as something different. That’s kind of what I was thinking about with that and, in the case of this music, taking the step of having a vibraphone specially built was, in a small way, a way of addressing that and reflecting on that.
TJG: What were your initial reactions when you began writing for retuned vibraphone? Did you feel like your ears were being retuned as well?
SL: No! *laughter* I have different ways of replicating it on the computer, so I had a sense of what it would sound like already. Thankfully, vibraphone acoustics aren’t particularly different to replicate in a digital way as much as they are in a woodwind instrument or even a piano, so I had a sense of what I was getting into. The nice thing about the vibraphone as compared to the piano or a chordal instrument, for example, is that when you retune a bar or change the pitch of an individual bar, it doesn’t really affect the timbre or the resonance of any of the other bars.
It probably does in subtle ways that I don’t understand, but it’s not really audible. You can change one note, but it doesn’t affect the pitches on instrument, just a collection of pitches, whereas on the piano if you change one note, you’re really affecting every single note on the piano. If you change more than one, four, ten notes, every single pitch changes and you end up with kind of like a static harmonic field because every note is reinforcing this new harmonic field that you’ve created. It’s just a little bit more difficult to create harmonic difference, harmonic contrast, but on the vibraphone I think you don’t really have that issue.
TJG: For our audience, could you offer an idea of how electronics will play into your performance on Friday?
SL: There’s not a tremendous amount of electronics; usually when I do have a composition that involves live electronics, it’s used to reinforce something already happening with the acoustic instruments in the ensemble. In other cases, it’s used to create a kind of heightened sense of the environmental ambiance surrounding the music. That’s the best way I can describe it—used as a subtle reinforcement to create an added layer of what you could call an ethereal component to the music.
TJG: On your website, you mention with regards to the return of the octet, “deconstructions of Bud Powell’s most forward-looking compositions.” What do you mean by “deconstructions?”
SL: On Friday, we’ll do two of those pieces: one is a re-working of “Glass Enclosure,” and there’s an English composer who I love named Michael Finnissy who has this term “transcription,” when he takes materials from another source and repurposes it. Sometimes it sounds really like an arrangement and you can hear the source material clearly, but other times it’s not at all on the surface of the music. He’ll take a piece by Verdi and totally repurpose it so that it’s unrecognizable. In the last book of octet music, we did this with a piece of Genius’s from the Wu-Tang Clan, “Living in the World Today,” so it was kind of the same process with “Glass Enclosure.” I did the same thing with the introduction he wrote for “Autumn in New York,” and we tried to make it fit with the rest of our repertoire.
TJG: 2013-14 looks to be an especially creative and musically diverse year for you. Do you have a secret to balancing all of these different projects?
SL: Not really, I just try to get involved with projects that I’m really excited about and that overlaps with my own interests as a composer and as a player. In other cases, I’d be involved exclusively in projects that I’m really passionate about, which usually means I’m playing less than I’d like to be otherwise, but that also means in the next nine, ten, twelve months that there will be a lot of things that have materialized in different areas that are interesting to me.
TJG: Considering the broad range of musical sensibilities and traditions that you’ve studied and draw from, do you consider yourself a “jazz” musician? How do you respond to the question, “What kind of music do you play?”
SL: It depends on how much time I have. *laughter* I tend to like to point to key practitioners whenever I can instead of talking about being a jazz musician or playing jazz. I just talk about the people whose music is really meaningful to me from these various traditions, like Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean and Betty Carter and Andrew Hill. Sometimes people associate those names with jazz and that’s fine with me, and with Tristan Murail and [Alexander] Scriabin and Michael Finnissy and whomever, people associate them with whichever lineage. That seems to be the most helpful thing—to talk about actual people and artists instead of genre definitions—but, of course, it’s a convenience, so sometimes you sense that if you say “jazz,” people will know what you’re talking about and other times they won’t.
TJG: What have you been listening to lately? Anything on repeat?
SL: That’s a good question. You know, I haven’t had that much time to sit down and listen to music because I’ve been trying to get this music together and rehearse and practice myself. I’ve been listening to Jonathan Finlayson’s new record [Moment and the Message, Pi Records] a fair amount, a bit to Lionel Loueke’s last album Heritage (Blue Note), and I’ve been listening to different excerpts from a Louis Andriessen opera, De Materie, and that’s probably the gist of it.
The Steve Lehman Octet performs at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, November 8th, with Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone), Tim Albright (trombone), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Jose Davila (tuba), Drew Gress (bass), and Tyshawn Sorey (drum set). Sets at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here.