Album review: Steve Lehman – Dialect Fluorescent (Pi)

Steve Lehman

You can barely get through a review of Steve Lehman’s work without bumping up against the word “angular.”

Hairpin turns made by the saxophonist’s horn, along with the pressurized kinetics of his mainstay trio Fieldwork (Lehman, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, pianist Vijay Iyer), have created an artistic persona that’s a smidge foreboding.

But lyricism is often audible through his rattling alto lines. And on this new, hard-driving trio disc, contours are more pronounced and several of the hallmark angles beveled. At the start of the program, on the feisty “Allocentric,” one fleet barrage of notes seemingly conjure the famed “Figaro, Figaro” exclamation from The Barber of Seville. It brings to Lehman’s occasionally steely sound the human cry that Ornette Coleman brokered.

Dialect Fluorescent could well be Lehman’s most approachable album. Between original pieces, it features romps through gems by Duke Pearson, Jackie McLean, and John Coltrane—as well as an update of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As the improv bustles along, a sense of traditional song bubbles up. Lehman and his colleagues—bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid—attack the standard tunes with the same ardor they bring to the leader’s songs. I use the term “bustle” because Dialect Fluorescent is a punchy affair, teeming with three-way interaction that barely takes a breath. Reid and Brewer have absorbed the sideways funk lingo established by Steve Coleman’s M-BASE strategies, and their coordination on unpredictable rhythms is expert. They bring a deep swing to Pearson’s “Jeannine.”

Lehman studied with McLean and Anthony Braxton, among others, and his piercing tone is a fetching blend of both these masters. In cahoots with a profound support team, Lehman’s sound is as eloquent as it is formidable. Here’s a date that just might become one of jazz’s classic sax trio discs. -Jim Macnie

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