Down the Spectral Rabbit Hole

lehman-travail-pi-recordingsI love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.

Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.

grisey-espacesThe piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.

I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.

Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)

I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.

But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”

The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.

In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is bright, like sunlight bouncing off glass. Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the foundation, and it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” harmonies.

On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.

Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.

Trio HLK

Trio HLKStandard Time (Ubuntu, 2018)

triohlk-standardYou can see why Steve Lehman and Evelyn Glennie want to hang out with these guys. Trio HLK is full of glitches in the matrix, playing smoothly rapid clockwork music that’s full of hiccups. With all the start-stop unpredictability, it’s fitting that one song is titled “Stabvest.”

The effect comes from rapid-fire shifts in time signatures — take a look at the blips of 13/16 and 15/16 in the sheet music for “Extra Sensory Perception Part II,” below (full score available here). Pianist Richard Harrold, guitarist Ant Law, and percussionist Richard Kass run this obstacle course with slick aggression, with Law’s eight-string guitar doubling as bass. The effect is like a sped-up minimalism, with lots of jump cuts between phrases that are repeating but not really repeating.

trio hlk sheet music

The result is music that feels ultra-modern but still sounds pleasant, between the chiming jazz-club chords and the occasional acrid-but-friendly touch of guitar. “TWILT,” a brainy twist on a jazz standard (you can figure out which one), is a good demonstration of what the trio can do. But their guest musicians add some sparkling fun. Lehman add his angular sense of cool to three tracks, and Glennie dances airily on songs like “Extra-Sensory Perception,” a thrill ride that culminates in a hard-driving succession of rising chords shared by piano and guitar.

Here’s a video of the gentle Part I of “Extra-Sensory Perception,” followed by the more intense Part II.


Steve Lehman Trio in NYC

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.

The Read: Apr. 21, 2011

Things I’ve found recently:

1. Tim Berne is on NPR! A review of Insomnia on Fresh Air: (My review of Insomnia is here.)

2. Gutbucket gets interviewed by the Fracture Compound blog. Learn about the compositional and rehearsal process behind their frenetic jazz/rock/punk songs.

(Gutbucket is coming to town: Tue. May 10 (Revolution Cafe, San Francisco); Wed. May 11 (Cafe Van Kleef, Oakland); Thu. May 12 (Hotel Utah, San Francisco). I haven’t reviewed their new one, Flock, on this blog, but I did write about the previous one.)

3. Steve Lehman‘s latest project: “Impossible Flow,” sounds pretty cool. You’ll recall he infuses his jazz with things like spectralism, a very scientific-sounding approach to harmony. Here’s a review of an “Impossible Flow” performance, written by the very cool Steve Smith:

4. Now on Ubuweb: a 60-minute documentary about Einstein on the Beach and its impact. It “changed forever the image of opera,” the narrator says at the beginning. But did it? My impression has been that Einstein is now viewed as a unique event in opera, a monumental, one-time accomplishment. People heard, experienced, absorbed, and moved on; even Glass’ subsequent operas were more conventional, right? Anyway, I’ve written before about my puzzlement and wonder at this major work, and it’s nice to have some explanations and to see some rehearsal footage to help me muddle my way through. I’m doubly glad to find this resource after hearing the whole opera.

Steve Lehman Infiltrates Your Brain

Steve Lehman Octet — Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi, 2009)

source: pirecordings.comThere’s a lot of publicity surrounding this album, and it’s justified. This feels like something big.

It’s like Steve Coleman‘s music taken to a stranger, spongier dimension. As with Coleman, the machinelike quality of the music — quick-fingered, mechanical beats; precise, stiff sax lines — doesn’t take away from its soul. You want to dance, but while the beat remains precise, the rhythms inside it are dense and changing. It’s like trying to catch a river with your hands.

The band has five horns, but the cool tremor of Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the defining voice, dotting the landscape like silvery beads of mercury. It’s the sound that you walk away with, and it contributes to the sci-fi feeling of the music, part of a busy and exciting future.

(Drummer Tyshawn Sorey has a lot to do with that, too. He’s also the drummer for the trio Fieldwork; I’ve described them, and pianist Vijay Iyer, before in the same futuristic steel-and-glass terms.)

Some of the sound is based on spectral harmony, a concept where new harmonies are built from the overtones found in the attack and decay of notes. Examples of this appear right off, in the opening “Echoes,” which uses a straight-chiming rhythm backed by really odd-sounding horns doing a low, dissonant buzz. Lehman then joins in for some gazelle-prancing soloing that dances around the lines. Weird chords abound, stretched by unusual harmonies in the sax line.

The album ends with a coolly sinister/smooth transcription of “Living in the World Today” by GZA (a member of Wu Tang Clan), a tale told with horns babbling one or two at a time in chaotic precision.