An artist embodies an approach to music without borders

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An artist embodies an approach to music without borders
A musician prepares for a performance at the grand re-opening event for David Geffen Hall in New York on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. The New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center was gutted and rebuilt as part of a $550 million renovation that aimed to fix its notoriously poor acoustics. Christopher Lee/The New York Times.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent afternoon at David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s violins began to play an ensemble pizzicato pattern underneath a turntable-scratch solo by the artist DJ Logic. I couldn’t help but smile.

That gratifying moment hit during jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles’ “San Juan Hill,” which Lincoln Center commissioned for the Philharmonic. It was a musical fusion, executed surprisingly well in a surprising space.

But while it may have been unusual for Lincoln Center, it isn’t a shock for New York as a whole. In between Charles’ new piece and the Philharmonic’s 1997 performance of “Skies of America” — a collaboration with composer-saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his Prime Time ensemble — a broad artistic network has cleared fresh paths for American composers, ones in which varied stylistic languages can draw energy from classical traditions, jazz-influenced improvisation and the beat-work of funk and hip-hop.

And beyond large institutions like Lincoln Center, musicians have been making this happen in smaller spaces. To take one example, shortly before the Philharmonic premiere of “San Juan Hill,” Roulette, in Brooklyn, hosted a concert that brought together saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman and the Orchestre National de Jazz with its artistic director, Frédéric Maurin.

The compositions were by Lehman, who played in the ensemble, and Maurin, who conducted. In addition to the 15 acoustic players — members of Lehman’s regular ensembles, like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and artists of Maurin’s group — both composers also employed another electronic musician, who manned a laptop that was running real-time interactive software developed by Ircam, the French electronic music center founded by Pierre Boulez in the 1970s.

Ircam checked the box for cutting-edge classical music. The acoustic improvisers channeled the history of jazz performance. And the head-nodding sounds of experimental hip-hop came into view in the rhythms of the half-dozen scores that Lehman contributed to the concert.

Roulette posted the concert on YouTube. And from the outset of Lehman’s music, beginning with “Los Angeles Imaginary,” about 11 minutes into the video, the keyboardist plays a complex ostinato pattern across two different manuals: one acoustic, one electronic. The riff is not an obviously danceable one. But after the percussionist comes in — offering a steady syncopation with the keyboard — the vibe of New York’s late 1990s underground hip-hop rears its head.

Next comes the addition of the acoustic bass. But the piece really blooms when Lehman triggers the reeds and brasses — along with a granular, spectral wash of electronic sound that comes from the laptop artist embedded within the orchestra. A saxophone solo by Lehman, 44, adds textures that he has honed on his alto instrument: slantwise methods that he developed in formal training and time on the New York scene. During his undergraduate years at Wesleyan, he studied with saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean, while also learning from the avant-garde music of Iannis Xenakis. While working on his doctorate in composition at Columbia, he worked with French spectral composer Tristan Murail and American experimentalist George Lewis.

In a recent interview, Lehman recalled studying with Murail and focusing on the limits of what listeners might grasp, in terms of complexity. Lehman obsessed over questions like: “When does a single note start sounding like chord, or vice versa? Or when does an electronic sound start sounding acoustic? Or when does something sound like it’s in a tempo versus out of tempo?”

Lehman added that, ever since that time with Murail, he has always tried to “exploit those transitions to make music that’s meaningful or exciting to listen to.” He has enjoyed wide-ranging success on that front, writing chamber music for Grossman Ensemble and a larger-scale work for the American Composers Orchestra.

He has also collaborated with composer-performers Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer, and Lehman’s releases on the Pi Recordings imprint have proven broadly influential in jazz circles. Lehman’s latest album on that label, “Xaybu: The Unseen,” was produced with yet another group that he participates in, the international jazz-rap fusion ensemble Sélébéyone.

In addition to Lehman, Sélébéyone includes soprano saxophonist and composer Maciek Lasserre, drummer Damion Reid, as well as two MCs: HPrizm, known to fans of Antipop Consortium as High Priest, and Senegalese artist Gaston Bandimic, who raps in the Wolof language. (“Sélébéyone” is the Wolof word for “intersection” — befitting perhaps any Lehman ensemble, but particularly one that involves bilingual rhyming.)

“Xaybu: The Unseen,” offers yet another way to hear the contemporary cross-pollination of classical, rap and jazz. In Lehman’s work “Liminal,” you can hear the influence of spectral harmony on his electronic production. And toward the end of one verse from HPrizm, — after the rapper mentions “riding on bare rims” — Lehman’s polyrhythms pile up, making a wild ride even bumpier.

In the interview, Lehman said that in his work with Sélébéyone, he often samples some of his classical music. “Any time you hear a harp or anything like that, or some kind of spectral, chamber music chord,” he said, it likely came from a piece like “Ten Threshold Studies,” which he wrote for the American Composers Orchestra.

That work, which I heard at Zankel Hall in 2018, is ripe for consideration as Lincoln Center and New York Philharmonic branch out. (Sélébéyone would sound good in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall, too.)

But regardless of whether Lehman is invited, his work is, thankfully, being well documented by Roulette, Pi Recordings and more.

Whether considering large-ensemble jazz writing or experimental rap or orchestral music, Lehman said, “I’m trying to survey the landscape, and figure out: Where do I fit in? What am I sort of uniquely equipped to contribute? And, in a best-case scenario, kind of add on to these histories.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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