Album Review…Steve Lehman Trio, “Dialect Fluorescent” (Pi Recordings, 2012)

On this album Steve Lehman practices an integrated approach to improvisation in which he places each and every musical element in de/constructive play, imbuing every gesture with the potential to spark new phrases and ideas. The trio’s dialogic interplay creatively explores the interrelationships between groove and melody, all the while layering superimpositions and elaborations on top of an energized set of intricate original compositions and re-imagined standards.

Dialect Fluorescent, Pi Recordings PI42, 2012. Personnel: Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Damion Reed, drum set. Tracks: Allocentric (Intro); Allocentric; Moment’s Notice; Foster Brothers; Jeannine; Alloy; Pure Imagination; Fumba Rebel; Mr. E. Recorded August, 22, 2011, at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY.

With a flowing and sensitive call, Lehman begins the album by himself with “Allocentric.” His opening phrases beckon the listener with gentle, highly lyrical melodic lines that slowly and contemplatively unfold an off-kilter groove with which Lehman ushers in Brewer and Reid. The trio immediately adopts and expands it, unsettling the groove itself through successive, improvised waves. Lehman’s improvisations compel him from the foundational rhythm, continually elaborating on it via sudden bursts and intricate, textured lines. However, he remains firmly grounded in the groove—at times returning to and making a melody out of it by hanging on single pitches insistently repeated in rhythm—and brings the listener into the fold, normalizing what once seemed “off-kilter” by carefully outlining the connections between the trio’s improvisations and the composition’s rhythmic basis.

The trio’s cover of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” once again reflects on the role of melody, this time by pushing it back to the end of the arrangement. With only fleeting melodic references, listeners are left to intuit the tune from the successive harmonies. But it’s not all melody that pushed aside, just Coltrane’s. Instead we are forced (happily) to consider Lehman and the trio’s work first. From within these superimposed melodic lines, Lehman augments Coltrane’s harmonies as well, his shifts and substitutions sympathetically supported by Brewer. Lehman’s composition “Foster Brothers” presents as an avant-garde deconstruction of a funk groove. With hints of classical minimalism, the trio plays with phasing the composition and groove—a sonic interpretation of the trio’s portrait on the album cover—once again insisting that the listener come to terms with every facet of the funk groove by stripping it down to its most fundamental elements.

In what is one of the album’s most exceptional moments, the trio arranges Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine” almost in mirror-image to “Moment’s Notice,” beginning with the standard’s melody from which Lehman crafts an extended contrapuntal improvisation on top of Brewer’s unflinchingly swinging bass lines. Listeners will revel in the inventiveness and elaborative lines Lehman spins, whereas students and those interested in delving a bit deeper would do well to pick up the transcriber’s pencil for this clinic on counterpoint. For its grounding constancy, Brewer’s bass serves as important contrast to the dynamism between Lehman and Reid, who acts as the counterpoint’s second melodic voice, weaving around and between Lehman’s lines with adept mastery. The interplay here between Lehman and Reid is equally revelatory, infusing the composition with energetic dialogue and polyphonic drive. Another standard originally composed for the soundtrack of the 1971 film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “Pure Imagination” serves as an apropos microcosm of the entire album. Whereas all the other tracks thus far have been propelled by a steady and insistent groove, “Pure Imagination” moves forward with all three musicians playing around the groove, which although explicitly pronounced at times, is more often implied as a intermittently expressed through-line which the trio develops through variation. This freer vibe features a spinning-out of the composition in which the musicians are carried off in successive cycles of inventive whimsy. Limited only by the expansive depths of Lehman’s own imagination, the trio takes apart this benign little tune and reconstructs it in a strikingly definitive fashion.

The album closes with “Mr. E,” an homage to Lehman’s former teacher, the saxophonist Jackie McLean. The composition is McLean’s, but, as with every track on Dialect Fluorescent, including the standards and covers, Lehman and his trio make this their own. In his 2007 article on McLean, Lehman wrote that McLean “was able to produce improvisations that remained rooted in his exquisite sense of timing and phrasing, while demonstrating a new linear syntax that was nondiatonic, fragmented, and highly abstract.” Lehman shares this drive to develop new paradigms for and through improvisation. In addition to McLean, Lehman was the student of other great improvisers, including Anthony Braxton and George Lewis, and his music demonstrates the potential of study realized with the guidance of these master musician/educators: the perfecting and pronouncement of a highly creative, individual voice that compels itself and those that hear it constantly and continually to further exploration.

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