Steve Lehman Octet at the Vortex, January 2011

Steve Lehman, by Scott McMillan

This was my first trip to the Vortex this year. It was also Steve Lehman’s. In fact, this was his first ever UK date. Given that fact, and the acclaim his work has been met with in recent years, it wasn’t surprising that the Dalston venue was completely sold out. And those tickets had been sold to a noticeably different crowd than usual; the average age can’t have been much more than 30. Perhaps because the Steve Lehman Octet’s 2009 album Travail, Transformation And Flow combines some clever jazz arrangements and classical theory with noticeably more modern elements. Influences from hip-hop and electronic music feature strongly, with the superb drummer Tyshawn Sorey providing the precise, intricate, and even funky rhythmic frameworks which kept young heads nodding in this packed venue all evening.

The cerebral stuff first: Lehman’s arrangements delve deep into ideas of harmony and dissonance, tone and timbre, creating these shimmering pieces that just seem to hang suspended in the air like clouds. “As Things Change (I Remain The Same)” and “Dub” both have these long pulsating vibraphone traces being joined by rising columns of alto and tenor sax, trumpet and trombone, all mixing together colourfully, before dissipating into the evening air. The melody lines can be equally challenging; the ending of “Alloy” saw Lehman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson engaging in furious conversation, completing each others’ phrases, talking over each other, before finally coming to an agreement by the piece’s end. Despite the complexity, the band are so well drilled that, they can still collectively spin and stop on a dime.

Jonathan Finlayson, by Scott McMillan

But underneath all of this theory, there is a youthful dynamism. Lehman is far from being “just” a jazz musician, and has experimented with Ableton and Max/MSP in his work – and it shows even in his acoustic compositions. The rhythms sound borrowed from electronic music forms, the crisp beats almost sounding programmed at times, the sort of thing that would be impossible to play – too fast, too intricate – without the likes of Tyshawn Sorey in the traps. Sections of “Alloy” and “No Neighbourhood Rough Enough” (“What, you don’t think I’ve seen rough neighbourhoods?” goofed Lehman) charged along like high energy drum’n’bass. Their songbook includes the Wu-Tang Clan, and they blasted through GZA’s “In The World Today” from Liquid Swords, the familiar loping rhythm emerging through a haze of tangled horns.

Last time I saw the Octet (at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam last year), Sorey was still on sabbatical from the group, working on his masters degree in composition, studying with the likes of Anthony Braxton – as if his Koan album hadn’t already marked him out as being a composer of some stature. He has now returned to the fold, and he announced this fact pretty early on in the evening, interrupting the first piece with a brutish WALLOP on his cymbal. Aside from his dextrous handling of those aforementioned rhythms, it was they way he mixed these outbursts of violence with moments of extreme delicacy which caught the ear. During one of the two performances of the highlight “Waves”, he managed to beat on his cymbals like a butcher tenderising meat, before dismantling his drumkit and providing a diaphonous backdrop by simply blowing on his snare drum. At another point he played by tracing his fingertips across the skin of his drums, listening intently to the soft vibrations he was producing; you could have heard a pin drop in the Vortex. Even after the band had taken their bow at the end of the second set, and were departing for the last time, he still couldn’t resist giving a cymbal another almighty WALLOP with his fist on the way out. A rising young star in an already sparkling lineup, let’s hope it isn’t too long before we see Sorey, as well as Lehman and the rest of this octet, back in the country.

Mark Shim by Scott McMillan