Steve Lehman Trio - "Pure Imagination" (Dialect Flourescent)
Steve Lehman’s last release as a leader, Travail, Transformation, and Flow, was a significant musical statement by a musician able to pull together a wildly diverse musical background. The Pi Recordings CD drew on the intersection of modernist threads from freebop via studies with Jackie McLean, structuralism via Anthony Braxton (with whom he studied with and continues to work), and compositional forms incorporating theories about the physics of sound via studies of spectral harmonies with Tristan Murail at Columbia. Of course an academic background, no matter how impressive, is never a reliable indicator of potential, but over the course of the last decade, Lehman has consistently proven himself an inveterate explorer. Dig in to his recordings and one finds a musician dedicated equally to the extension of the jazz tradition countered by a propensity for finding expansive compositional forms in which to work through collective improvisation.
Back in 2003, Lehman recorded the trio session Interface with Mark Dresser and Pheeroan akLaaf. Over the course of seven originals, the three carved out a probing take on the sax/bass/drums format. As would be expected, with musicians like Dresser and akLaaf, roles were pushed and prodded, and Lehman effectively used the trio format as a setting for his compositional frameworks, utilizing the free jazz tradition as a touchstone, leavened by his tart-edged tone and free-bop phrasing which harkened back to his studies with McLean. Dialect Fluorescent, recorded almost a decade later, finds Lehman with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, working their way through a set split between the leader’s originals and some covers, providing a window in to how he has grown in the intervening years.
Things kick off with a solo alto reading of Lehman’s piece “Allocentric” and the composer lithely teasing out whisping threads from the keening melodic theme. When Brewer and Reid come in, the melody clicks in to focus over a coursing groove, but the three never lose the elasticity of the opening solo. When Lehman and Brewer launch in to the next piece, familiar kernels keep popping out, but it’s almost two minutes in when Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” finally emerges as the trio races headlong, wrapping the tendril-like torrents into a completely original take on the chestnut. Pair that with the trio’s take on Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine,” a tune that Cannonball Adderley put his indelible stamp on in the early 1960s, and it is clear that these three have absorbed the tradition and are able to use it as a touchstone for structural transformations. They nail the fluidity of the hard-bop roots while opening things for a fiery romp.
Lehman’s writing provides an effective foundation for trio interplay on “Alloy” and “Fumba Rebel,” both of which benefit from Brewer and Reid’s sense of propulsive drive and the leader’s circuitous phrasing and laser focus on form, no matter how heated the playing gets. Then there’s the way they transform the mawkish Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse tune “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory into an ecstatic exercise that twists and inverts the theme with vigorous invention. Things finish off with Jackie McLean’s “Mr. E,” which the three toss of with stop-start abandon. With this one, Lehman continues a run of stellar releases, showcasing his probing approach as both leader, writer and improviser.