Steve Lehman Quartet – Manifold (CF 097)
Coming hot on the heels of his quintet release, On Meaning, productive saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman switches labels to drop Manifold, an intriguing quartet club performance captured live at Portugal’s Jazz ao Centro Festival. With a strong cast of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist John Hebert, Lehman embraces an expansive set of musical agendas combining cerebral precision with passionate intensity.
“Interface D” kicks off the date with an M-Base-influenced concept, where Waits’ loose, abstracted James Brown beats churn around Lehman’s concentrated clusters of knotty alto notes. Eventually breaking down completely into a sax/drums duo, the tune’s fiery energy gets the audience’s immediate attention, as evidenced by the eruption of applause at the track’s tight finish.
“Is This Rhythm?” proposes closely-aligned sax and trumpet questions that slowly emerge until the band surges, creating dense, cyclical effects that obscure the composition’s structure. The band always knows exactly where it is amongst the chaos, cohesively marking moments in the tune’s progress with pinpoint accuracy.
The group pays tribute to one of its musical godfathers with a gorgeous rendering of “Dusk,” an interpretation deepened by most of the band members’ association with its composer, Andrew Hill. Lehman, Waits and Hebert all spent quality time in the late pianist’s ensembles, and all are disciples of Hill’s innovative vision. Hebert’s immense abilities include a profound harmonic sensibility; his shifting, melodic ostinato carries the emotional weight of the tune. Finlayson blows a soulful, far-reaching solo of vibrant colors, and Waits stretches time to the outer limits while maintaining the integrity of the piece. In honor of their mentor, the quartet makes the whole piece sound like a lucid, eloquent conversation full of elegant warmth.
The quartet enters more elusive territory as it continues Lehman’s series of statements on “Interface F,” a sound collage where the sax flutters against the eardrums like a wash of static before coalescing with the white noise of Waits’ brushes. The lengthy drum breaks of “Interface C” set the tone for a broken-beat cadenza with accompanying horn fanfare, taking cues from Dixieland and spiraling into a freeform debate. A similar tactic occurs on “Interface A,” where the musicians skitter about in insect-like trajectories over a complex rhythm that implies a sort of hybrid, hyper-clave pattern.
Finlayson’s “Berceuse” takes its name from a form of French lullaby, and its flowing rubato style evokes the gentle rocking motion of ocean waves. The trumpet shadows a contemplative saxophone melody as muted bass and light cymbal work leave commentary like the hiss and spray of ebbing tides.
Lehman closes the set with the dedication “For Evan Parker.” The tour de force solo of extended saxophone techniques is an appropriate homage to the pioneering British reedman, complete with buzzing, multiphonic runs and piercing metallic cries that eventually trail off into silence like a door creaking at the end of a long hallway.
Containing moments of mathematic intellect, esoteric intuition and head-scratching delirium, Manifold is a compelling look at the perceptive, spontaneous imaginations of four musicians at the top of their game.