Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn: The People I Love

Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn: The People I Love

  • Pi Recordings

2019

Assisted by pianist Craig Taborn, the New York saxophonist’s longstanding trio balances minimalist stillness with post-bop freneticism, and covers Autechre and Jeff “Tain” Watts along the way.

When the saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman posted a list of his favorite MCs on Twitter this summer, he wasn’t just playing along with a popular social-media pastime. He was also expressing something about his own history. In citing Ka and Buckshot, Lehman produced a list deep with New York underground talent—fitting for a player who has worked in the city’s most adventurous jazz clubs alongside names like Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. And by including Antipop Consortium and the Senegalese rapper Gaston Bandimic, the saxophonist was shouting out his sometime collaborators (most notably, on 2016’s Sélébéyone).

Lehman’s new album, The People I Love, offers a further glimpse of his listening habits, without anything approaching caginess or irony. The covers here include tunes from Autechre and onetime Wynton Marsalis drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts as well as new versions of a couple of Lehman’s own compositions, previously recorded with other groups. The songs from his own back pages don’t seem like a form of self-love, though. Instead, they suggest an air of reinvestigation. They raise questions. As in: What made those bands—full of collaborators that Lehman clearly admires—click? And how might those effects be reproduced by other hands?

Some of those other hands belong to the pianist Craig Taborn—another New York heavyweight, but one who hasn’t appeared on a Lehman recording before. Here, he joins Lehman’s longstanding trio (including bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid) to tackle a few new compositions, plus those covers.

It makes for a stirring set, if not a full-throttle mind-meld between two of the best player-composers on the contemporary jazz scene. Lehman and Taborn share joint writing credits on three tracks: the “Prelude,” “Interlude,” and a “Postlude.” They’re well-wrought miniatures, but not the main event. It’s in the other songs where you get a sense of two individualists getting to know one another better. “Ih Calam and Ynnus,” a Lehman original, ably showcases both artists’ respective aesthetics. The performance starts out with some of the minimalist stillness of Taborn’s own compositions, while Lehman’s entrance introduces some of the updated post-bop freneticism for which he is justly admired.

There’s a tension building here: Taborn keeps laboring over a few chords while Lehman crafts increasingly heated figures—until the pianist breaks his form open. Or does he? When Taborn’s solo turn comes, he matches Lehman for burning energy in the higher register of his instrument. But check out his other hand; it is still obsessing over some of the same droning chords from earlier in his performance.

Instead of picking one mode, Taborn’s doing two things at once—slyly, and without any evidence of strain. This is a trait common to some of his own bands, in which an Olympian dexterity winds up feeling like the output of someone playing casually, on the corner. While it’s no surprise that Taborn can make himself at home in Lehman’s complex, fiery music, it’s still thrilling to hear. (“Ynnus” is worth the price of admission, all on its own.)

Elsewhere, Taborn reimagines some of the sound of the saxophonist’s past groups—most memorably in his work on a tune like “Beyond All Limits,” where his vaulting intervals stand in for some of the more thickly orchestrated material from Lehman’s octet. And he also knows when to pull back, as on “qPlay,” the Autechre cover. After establishing some of the harmony from the original track, the pianist hangs in the background, allowing the song to become a feature for Brewer and Reid, who jointly adapt Autechre’s unpredictably pulsing electronic sound for jazz-quartet context.

All that’s missing here is a sense of Lehman’s immersion into Taborn’s compositional mold. It would be fascinating to hear the saxophonist’s sound lingering inside the slow-boil style of the pianist’s working groups. Happily, the results of this first recorded meeting make an ample case for future encounters.



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