Concert review: Steve Lehman Octet

The Steve Lehman Octet (Picture: Russ Escritt)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK

This was a bit of a treat – the chance to hear what is going on at the cutting edge of jazz in New York, from a composer who allies some of the preoccupations of contemporary “classical” music with the instrumentation, energy and rhythmic feel of jazz , leading a band that included some of the hottest players around.

They were playing music from Lehman’s 2009 Pi Recording, Travail, Transformation And Flow. Most of these pieces are not much longer than a modern pop song, and, while most concert performances of recorded jazz will be extended and relatively open-ended, it is indicative of Lehman’s working methods that he can introduce a piece by telling you exactly how long it will be. Dub was a blast of one minute, 45 seconds; other pieces were around four to five minutes.

This is music that depends on its original compositional structure. Individual soloing is tightly reined in to make the most of the tightly packed, intricately layered musical ideas that Lehman has detailed on paper. What you will not find in it is much melody or much emotional range.

A lot of the time the frontline horns – Mark Shim on tenor, Lehman on alto, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Tim Albright on trombone would be playing lengthened stabs on single notes so tightly packed harmonically and so tightly phrased that they felt like overtones of the same instrument. Behind them, Dan Peck on tuba and Drew Gress on acoustic bass would be pumping out complex lines in tricky, ever-changing pulses, while vibraphonist Chris Dingman added rich, ringing accented chords, almost as tightly packed harmonically as the horns.

Then, some of the front line would step back while one horn would break out in a brief solo: blisteringly fast, condensed ideas from the saxophonists, marginally airier, more impressionistic playing from trumpet and trombone.

And, behind all this was Tyshawn Sorey. The last time I saw a drummer hit a drum that hard was the last time I saw Tyshawn Sorey. And ditto the last time I heard a drummer play quite so melodically with such force. The man is like a force of nature, a swirling storm one minute, a placid pool for a brief moment, followed by a deluge and a raging typhoon. Perhaps I was sitting too close, or perhaps I just find his playing too compelling, but there was the risk that Sorey is such an extraordinary performer that it threw off kilter the overall balance of the band.

Certainly I came away thinking that, despite the complexity and skill of the Lehman’s music, it nevertheless is contained in a fairly narrow band of expression. He does what he does remarkably well, but the tight intellectual focus of his ideas results in a tight and restricted emotional range too. In contrast, what Tyshawn Sorey brings to it is a much broader, more generous personality. The seven are squeezing their musical expertise into the constricting structures Lehman has provided them with; Sorey is bursting free.  (It is interesting that he is the only player without a score.)

A challenging and viscerally exciting evening that went down especially well with the musos (I reckon probably half the audience were practising musicians) and would, I suspect, have excited a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group audience equally well.

Did we witness jazz’s future direction? I don’t think so. In fact I hope not. Lehman’s music has an intriguing but in the end a far too constraining perspective. It’s a vortex into which jazz might spin and disappear altogether.

But you can sign me up for the Tyshawn Sorey fan club.

Categories: Live review

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2 replies

  1. Interesting review; see my comments on the Birmingham Jazz website

    Tony Dudley-Evans


  1. Birmingham Jazz » Blog Archive » 5 Star Review of Steve Lehman Octet in Today’s Guardian (27th January)

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