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Steve Lehman Octet at Wexner Center for the Arts May 6

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by Richard Sanford on April 26, 2016

Saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman‘s justly-acclaimed octet returns to Columbus for the first time since 2010 for a show at the Wexner Center on Friday, May 6th, at 8pm (tickets available here). Lehman’s worked with many hallowed guests of the Wexner Center including Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer. With the latter and the drummer Lehman’s bringing this go-round, Tyshawn Sorey, I saw a powerful set of music by  their collective trio, Fieldwork, in the previous location of the Jazz Gallery in downtown Manhattan, a set that made the walls shake and embedded new ways of thinking about rhythm and harmony in my head like shrapnel. His own work as a leader varies from small group improvisation to through-composed chamber music to collaborations with electronic artists but he soars and sounds most like himself in larger groups to best show off his expansive harmonies and panoramic visions, especially the octet he brings to the Wexner in May. Continue reading for more info on the players and video.

Lehman’s records with the octet, including New York Times writer Nate Chinen’s 2009 record of the year Travail, Transformation, and Flow and 2014’s masterpiece Mise en Abîme (the latter meaning “placed within abyss”) which placed first in Francis Davis’ poll of jazz critics reconstruct familiar elements in shocking, refreshing ways. This book is full of pieces packed with density and drama, elaborate mechanisms breathtaking in their scope and their nuance. The thickness of the horns has that satisfying sense of washing over the listener but these big waves and rich moves are full of tiny, intricate pieces that connect together in surprising ways. He’s forged a language that combines the raw bebop of players like Jackie McLean (who Lehman interviewed for Do The Math) with spectral music, the latter more often discussed in relation to classical composers like Iannu Dumitrescu and Kaija Saariaho.

Key to giving these heavy pieces their organic lightness is the players assembled. These musicians are at the top of their respective instruments today and hearing them interact live in a room that sounds as good as the Wexner Center performance space is my number one reason for recommending this show. The use of vibraphone, courtesy of Chris Dingman, has a quicksilver flavor, slipping through everything around it, showering sparks of bright chords here to shift the color palate of the pieces then nudging the piece’s rhythmic propulsion. Dingman’s been a key colorist in ensembles led by artists as diverse as Anthony Braxton, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Gerald Clayton. Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, the melodic force of nature in MacArthur Genius recipient Steve Coleman’s abstracted funk group The Five Elements, has also lent his singular tone and intensity to groups led by Mary Halvorson and Craig Taborn. Trombonist Tim Albright, Finlayson’s foil in the front-line brass section here and in Steve Coleman’s The Five Elements, has also worked with Maria Schneider, Rufus Wainwright, and The National. Other reeds player in the octet is Mark Shim on tenor who made one of my favorite records to come out on Blue Note when I was in college, New Directions, featuring Jason Moran, and also played with Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Hamiet Bluiett.

Tubist José Davila is a key component of the brass section and the rhythm section, simultaneously. I first heard Davila in Henry Threadgill’s Zooid in one of my favorite shows that year and he completely refigured what I thought about tuba in a jazz context, harkening back to the early swing era of doubling the bass but also a volcanic, electrifying force of melody and harmony. Davila’s a key player on Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize winning album In for a Penny, In for a Pound of last year. Bassist Drew Gress makes even the best band in the world better with his unshakable sense of melody and rhythm, he killed it in Ralph Alessi’s quartet at Winter Jazzfest in NYC earlier this year and he’s killed it in every context I’ve seen him including Wex veterans Tim Berne, Uri Caine, and Dave Douglas. Tyshawn Sorey on drums here has morphed over the years from one of my absolute favorite drummers in jazz – and he became that almost immediately when I heard him on Vijay Iyer’s Blood Sutra in 2003, a status that’s only grown larger and deeper in my heart – into also one of my favorite composers full-stop. His more delicate records like Oblique-I and Koan (and his astonishing piano trio I caught a set of last fall at the Village Vanguard) work forms I love in a way I never see coming and, as a sideman, still lighting a fire underneath and making even the most complex rhythms real and funky from Wadada Leo Smith to Kris Davis to John Zorn.

There isn’t a much better choice to make on a spring night. Giants are coming to our town.

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