When Steve Lehman goes off on one of those saxophone runs, a cascading of notes like a Swiss watch in overdrive, I think of precision and tension. Neither trait is unique to Lehman in jazz, but the way he builds his music, the steely supermodern choices of notes, the busy backing rhythms he prefers, creates a special kind of tension, like a steel cable so taut it can’t be plucked, only hammered like a xylophone to produce perfect tones of glass. (Ignore the impossible physics, I’m being artistic here.)
I got to experience some of this in person Wednesday night. Taking advantage of a rare trip to New York, I stopped by The Jazz Gallery to see Lehman play in trio, with Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. The Jazz Gallery is a little second-floor space in western Soho just above Canal Street. It’s a quiet neighborhood with some big commercial properties; my cab took me past old industrial buildings a parking lot for a UPS fleet.
The venue’s name is literal. It’s a small photo gallery — framed portraits of Ornette on the walls — devoted to jazz performance. Few frills, no refreshments. Like The Stone, it exudes a serious dedication to the music, but with white walls instead of The Stone’s insulating black. It’s a narrow room with just enough space for a small stage and several dozen folding chairs. I opted to sit on the padded benches in the back — more comfortable there.
We got a lot of the steely, supermodern Lehman, but some of his loosest playing came on cover tracks — one a swingy Duke Pearson song that got the ultra-post-bop treatment in Lehman’s solo, another Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), played against busy drums and an ominous bass pedal tones — one note up and down different octaves. Lehman took the “Pure Imagination” theme through a sinewy disaggregation and wound up in hard, overblowing territory for his solo.
As often happens in a cozy venue, the bass was tough to hear, dominated by the toms and bass drum. I liked the work I heard from Brewer, though, and Reid was a monster on drums, at one point trading fours with Lehman in flurries of fast thunder.
Like I said, we got a lot of Lehman’s modernism, too. It was during “Alloy,” an aptly titled composition of his from a few years back, that the image of the taut cable came to me, during one of his long runs that build and build. It’s not just that he doesn’t hit resolution; the key to the sound lies deeper into the choices of notes. It’s his language and part of what makes his playing special.
The set ended with “Allocentric,” a word that, according to Lehman, can describe a directional sense based on objective directions (north, east, west) as opposed to egocentric (left, right, ahead). Allocentric orientation is like the world on a grid, and “this one definitely has a grid,” Lehman said. It was a quirky song, with bass and drums stumbling through a complex, slowed-down rhythm while Lehman cut across the lines like a jaywalker. A nice way to end the set, it was captivating but not what you’d call catchy, a fresh twist on what we’d been hearing.
Lehman said this trio is preparing to take the music on the road to Europe for a week in June, and he thanked us for being part of the NYC laboratory for working the material. They’ll also be at The Stone Aug. 23 and 24.