Steve Lehman is a pioneering saxophonist, composer, and Jazz Gallery regular who needs little introduction. Praised by The New York Times as “a state-of-the-art musical thinker” and a “dazzling saxophonist,” Lehman composes and performs across a spectrum of experimental musical idioms. Several of his albums have been voted #1 Jazz Album of the Year by NPR Music, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, and he is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and Doris Duke foundations. He is currently a Professor of Music at The California Institute of the Arts, having additionally taught at Wesleyan, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, The New School, Columbia, Berklee, and IRCAM in Paris.
This week, Lehman will take the roll of mentor to Maria Grand in our latest mentorship series. The two saxophonists, accompanied by Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, will perform sets at The Jazz Gallery, SEEDS, and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We spoke with Lehman about his thoughts and expectations for the mentorship process, as well as his own continued growth as an artist.
The Jazz Gallery: Maria had a funny story about asking you to mentor her, and you saying you didn’t think she need the mentorship, and then a few months later coming around to ask her if she was still interested. What’s your version of how the mentorship came about?
Steve Lehman: Well, we did a kind of session together, playing tunes and talking about composition at my studio a few years ago. I knew she was dedicated and hardworking, and had been musically invested in her craft. But I hadn’t heard her up close and personal for several years: I was blown away by how good she sounded, and by what she’d been able to accomplish in terms of developing a voice. I remember, at that session, her saying something along the lines of “Yeah, I’ll be mentored!” [laughs]. It didn’t, at the time, strike me as something that would necessarily be of great value to her. But then, I thought it would be a good opportunity to potentially introduce some new audiences to her music, and to give her an in-depth opportunity to look under the hood at my work, to see how it functions in rehearsals, and how it translates into my approach as a bandleader.
TJG: A discussion of your music invariably entails spectral techniques, rigorous approaches to composition, extended saxophone techniques, different forms of improvisation. There’s so much that you bring to the stage. Given that, how do you approach a short yet open-ended mentorship?
SL: Maria has been able to make such progress because she understands that it’s entirely up to each of us, as creative musicians, to take the initiative and do our homework. We’ve been in touch, talking about ideas, emailing music back and forth. And any time I’ve said “If you don’t have time to get to this or that, it’s not a problem, we can work around it,” she’s always been quick to say “No no no, I’ll take care of it, I’ll put the necessary time in.” She’s got that psychology of being disciplined, of not giving yourself a pass. The ground we cover or the familiarity we reach with my music is less important than the overall process of how she approaches the situation in the first place. I’m hoping to lead by example, in terms of how I approach the music, and to try to take each performance as a serious opportunity to share music with people. I hope that will come across, and expect that to be the lion’s share of what we’ll cover together.
TJG: That phrase, “not giving yourself a pass”—is that a frame of mind you resonate with as an artist? It’s a common mindset for jazz musicians, I think, but it’s not necessarily the only way to approach the learning process.
SL: Right [laughs]. Another way to frame that idea is just to be honest with yourself about what you want your playing to sound like, what you want your music to sound like, what areas of your music need to be reinforced. It’s not easy to be clear-headed when looking at your own work, or to be honest about what you want to share with others. But the more we can do that as performers, the more meaningful the results.
TJG: Maria said you sent some scores and some practice tracks. What’s the vibe of what you’re preparing, and what form do those tracks take?
SL: It’s mostly repertoire I’ve been playing for a long time with Matt and Damion in trio format, and finding ways to integrate Maria, to get her acclimated to the music. There’s some relatively new stuff that we’ll be discovering together as a trio, and then a few completely new pieces that all four of us will sink our teeth into, collectively.
TJG: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been playing with Matt and Damion since 2006, and they’ve been playing together since 2002 as Greg Osby’s rhythm section. What continues to pull you towards their combined rhythm section sound?
SL: That’s a good question. I’ve been playing with the two of them since about 2006, and with Matt since about 2003. They have distinct identities as instrumentalists and conceptualists on drums and bass. It’s somewhat rare that people of such unique identity and personality are able to keep that identity intact while creating a high degree of continuity as rhythm section players. They consistently find a rhythmic relationship and language together that’s unique, yet functional and supportive.
TJG: Any ways they continue to surprise you, even after ten years?
SL: No, I pretty much know everything they’re gonna do at this point [laughs]. Yeah, absolutely! It’s what’s kept us working and playing together for so long. We keep surprising each other. That’s rare. When you first meet somebody and are discovering their language, it can be very fulfilling, but it’s unusual to find someone who continues to inspire you and encourages you to find new sides of your creativity, even after a decade. I definitely don’t take it for granted.
TJG: Maria said she’s played with them as well. How do you think they’ll support, or act as a foil to, your onstage interaction with Maria?
SL: Those guys are getting to be old men at this point [laughs]. They’re seasoned professionals, adept at reacting to any musical situation or dynamic under the sun. They’ll probably approach it the same way they support everything else, giving themselves to the music and doing their part to make things sound great, regardless of what turns things take.
TJG: You mentioned you have two young kids. When I was speaking with Maria, she mentioned her admiration of your laser-focus and dedication to your craft while also juggling a life of touring, having a family, raising children. Does having a family feel like a part of your identity now, in the sense that you’ve been a musician all your life, but now there’s the extra dimension of responsibility to raise a family?
SL: For sure. I’m learning as I go. I’m discovering it as we speak, as my kids get older. They’re the most important thing to me. It’s interesting how to integrate that with I do as a performer and a musician. Bobby Hutcherson has this quote about how, when he was younger, he thought music came first, but as he grew older, he realized music was a reflection of the people that he loved. I definitely relate to that. Anyone who’s a parent and is lucky enough to work in a profession they’re passionate about has a special reciprocity there: You can take advantage of your profession, being a musician in my case, to show your kids what you’re passionate about. You can become an example of how they can find a path toward their own passion.
TJG: Do your kids show any interest in what you do?
SL: None, none at all [laughs]. Just kidding. My daughter is just starting to catch the music bug, listening to music and singing. My son does as well. He’s a little older, and has started to pick up on the fact that, when I leave town for concerts and workshops, most of the musicians I play with are close friends of mine, almost like family members. So, my son has expressed an interest in joining the group, so we can ‘be friends’ too. It’s very sweet, and very accurate: The social, personal component is one of the things that keeps me invested in music. It’s my favorite part, and one of the most important.
TJG: In a previous interview with Jazz Speaks, you discussed how “I can’t reinvent myself every 3 or 5 years… It’s really about reinforcing things and making incremental progress.” Does this still resonate with you, and do you find yourself balancing your work as a composer and performer against long-term musical and academic goals?
SL: Yes, it still resonates with me. I try to stay focused and work on things methodically as much as I can. I’m in a unique and favorable situation where the last two projects I did, the second Octet record and Sélébéyone, were received in such a way where the emphasis was placed on the innovative elements of the recordings. I was happy and proud of that, certainly, but I also want to be honest with myself and acknowledge that everything I do won’t necessarily be received that way. I strive to keep my focus on personal, musical growth, and not get caught up in the press or praise, as grateful for it as I am for it.
TJG: Mentorship, more often than not, is often a two-way street; Is there anything that you’re hoping to learn from Maria through the mentorship process?
SL: I agree, mentorship can be a transactional relationship, both a teaching and learning experience. I’ve already learned a lot from her, about how she conducts herself, seeks out information on her own, from elders, from colleagues. How she navigates being a young saxophonist in 2017, I’ve learned plenty from that. I don’t know exactly how things will manifest themselves this coming week, but I have no doubt that there will be plenty of learning on both sides.
Steve Lehman and Maria Grand finish off The Jazz Gallery Mentorship Series, Vol. 4, Ed. 1, this Friday, September 29th, at SEEDS. They will be joined by Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. One set at 9 P.M. $15 general admission.