Steve Lehman Quartet – Manifold (CF 097)
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is a familiar name among new jazz aficionados, mostly for his pedigree of studying the instrument with Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean, and composition (currently) with George Lewis. He’s worked in more commercial settings as well as – where these ears first heard him – with pianist Dave Burrell and drummer William Hooker in the Echo/Peace Continuum group. On Manifold, his second date for Clean Feed (recorded live in Coimbra, Portugal), he’s joined by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist John Hebert on a series of compositions and ostensible group improvisations as well as Andrew Hill’s “Dusk” and Finlayson’s “Berceuse.”
So much is made of the presence of a “concept” behind Lehman’s work that the freshness of his playing and arrangements, not to mention his consistently excellent choice of sidemen (his first on Clean Feed featured drummer Pheeroan Ak Laff and bassist Mark Dresser), seem a bit scuttled. The pretense of M-base this and Braxton/Lewis that, shouldn’t get in the way of as landmark a performance as listeners here have of “Dusk.” A more recent entry in the late pianist-composer’s catalog, it was featured prominently on 2000’s Dusk (Palmetto) with then up-and-coming saxophonists Greg Tardy and Marty Ehrlich. Hill’s music is rarely covered, and much in the way Steve Lacy approached Monk, it’s interesting to hear a piano-less unit interpret his work. Hebert’s tone is impeccable, reminiscent here of Barry Guy or Dave Holland, and sketches the pensive vamp perfectly. Finlayson and Lehman, presented up to this point in darting counterpoint, catch the rays of the tune’s Latin lilt in knotty unison. Waits and Hebert set up a an insistent but fragmented outline beneath the trumpeter’s flits and contortions, hardbop phrases played as whiffs through Don Cherry’s battered pocket horn. Lehman’s got a puckery tone and bone-worries his phrases; there’s a bit of Braxton’s speed and McLean’s power, but I’m mostly reminded of John Tchicai. As Waits steps up the density of his dry whirlwind, Lehman’s resoluteness in developing a very small phrase area is rather astounding, and accounts for much of the tension driving the piece. “Dusk” is as consummate a performance of “inside-outside” jazz as one’s likely to hear. Manifold is lean, hungry creative music, and is highly recommended to both old-soul Lehman converts and new ears alike.