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Album review: Steve Lehman Octet's 'Travail, Transformation, and Flow'

July 2, 2009 | 10:32 am


Call what saxophonist Steve Lehman does a variation on "math-jazz," with apologies to the time signature-hopping  sub-genre that rose out of the mid-'90s indie rock scene. Though nothing from this album will ever be confused with Don Caballero, Lehman makes the seemingly counterintuitive choice to introduce computer analysis into jazz in the hopes of greater exploring of spectral harmony between instruments.

What this involves is a whole lot of mind-scrambling physics and deep thought concerning frequency relationships and microtonal overtones, but Lehman's heady excursions remain unique and engaging to the listener whatever your knowledge of musical theory. Album opener "Echoes" sets the tone with a complicated, slow-burning conversation among the octet, slowly building atop Lehman's chrome-bright pointillist arcs. The 10-minute plus "Alloy" marks another highlight with tuba, trombone and trumpet encircling Lehman's alto through an intricate, IDM-adjacent beat by drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Elsewhere Chris Dingman's vibraphone sets a menacing pace through a woozy take on GZA/Genius' "Living in the World Today" that resembles a crossroads of jazz, funk and drum and bass.

Though Lehman and his cohorts have created something drenched with almost staggering complexity, the end result never feels bloodless. The players may be working within a delicate framework, but improvisation and the pushing and pulling against boundaries reveals the warm heart of jazz still racing underneath.

Steve Lehman Octet
"Travail, Transformation, and Flow"
Pi Recordings
Three stars

-- Chris Barton