Mondays with Morgan: Steve Lehman (new album ‘Ex Machina’ with Orchestre National de Jazz)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman, who recently released a new album, Ex Machina, with the state-funded French ensemble Orchestre National de Jazz via Pi Recordings.

Steve Lehman. Photo credit: Andrea Boccalini

Flute, clarinet, trombone, tuba, vibraphone, synthesiser, a rhythm section, all manner of electronics, and so much more. From a composer’s and arranger’s standpoint, this can be an unwieldy assemblage.

Granted, the revered saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman possesses the facility to make this not only work, but flourish. But he’s not going to pretend, from the jump, this has always been his strong suit.

“It’s overwhelming. I’ve had very few forays into this sort of big band writing prior to this,” Lehman readily admits to LondonJazz. Yet Ex Machina marvellously splits the difference between heady innovation and crisp accessibility.

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“Los Angeles Imaginary” splits the atom of a deceptively simple piano line; “Ode to akLaff” gouges melodic information from guttural overtones; “Speed-Freeze (part 1)” is commensurately weightless and foreboding.

Regarding this balance, Lehman points to two leading lights of the music: Thad Jones and Anthony Braxton.

As per the former: “Thad can have these very abstract, very challenging harmonies, but do it in a way where it feels almost inevitable, or very natural,” Lehman says. And when he considers Braxton’s variable in his equation, Creative Orchestra Music 1976 comes to mind.

“He exploded the possibility of what a big band record [can be] – what you can do with those forces,” he continues. “It can be very ambient music; it can be an interesting structure for the soloists to have to navigate; it can draw from Count Basie.

“It blew the doors open for me more than anyone else,” Lehman says – and even if you have a decent knowledge of large-ensemble jazz, the multifarious, unpredictable, yet architecturally cogent Ex Machina might just do that for you.

Read on for an interview with Lehman about his working relationship with Orchestre National de Jazz, negotiating the tricky terrain of a large ensemble, and why Ex Machina represented a breakthrough in regard to his singular methodology.

LondonJazz News: Last year, I saw you perform with the Orchestre National de Jazz at Roulette in Brooklyn. How did you prepare this music for the studio?

Steve Lehman: Well, speaking in broad strokes, the project was in very luxurious circumstances.

There were a lot of resources and infrastructures for us to rehearse a lot, and tour. We probably did 10 concerts or so before we went into the studio, so that helped us make little changes and refine what we were trying to do.

I think the biggest thing with the studio – for this music, with so many voices – is that we had four days in a really nice studio in Germany. As we were mixing everything, we could get all the different voices pretty precisely at the [desired] level of the volume and dynamic.

So, the things we wanted thrown into relief were easily audible, and the things that were in more of a supportive role – just dynamics – that was the biggest thing. That we could fine tune, almost like we were working with an orchestral piece.

LJN: I have no idea how you balance this multitude of timbres and roles. So many moving parts.

SL: The thing that helped me was to treat each piece with a very specific kind of goal or project in mind. That, a lot of times, would kind of answer questions, or lead the way in terms of how to orchestrate things, or use which instruments when, and stuff like that. So, that helped me sort through the endless possibilities and keep track of everything.

Orchestre National Jazz. Photo credit: Sylvain Gripoix

LJN: I’m sure that occasionally bypasses the creative centres and enters the realm of pure logistics.

SL: Yeah, there are some logistics of just being a good orchestrator. You want to be aware of the physical reality of what you’re asking people to do on their instruments, and not ask them to do something that’s physically impossible.

Or, if you’re asking them to do something that’s really challenging, have a good reason. Be able to say, “I know, it’s gonna be a pain in the ass, but trust me; it’s going to be cool.” Or, “Here, I worked on it too,” and sort of leading by example.

There’s a piece of mine on there called “Alchimie,” which is very short – this three-minute piece. The project of that piece was to see if I could get the kind of colours and overall atmosphere that you get from a big orchestral piece by somebody like Tristan Murail for 60 or 80 minutes, and sort of evoke those same textures with only 15 musicians and a little bit of electronics.

So, can I create those swelling, swirling masses of sound with much smaller forces? And then, can I still have it feel very organic, and like it’s happening out of time, but still, in surprising ways, make it clear that it is tied very precisely to a pretty meticulously crafted rhythmic grid?

Basically, there has to be a rhythmic propulsion and flow and groove, even with the sort of unwieldy orchestral textures.

To your point, I’ve only got, let’s say, 15 plus voices to work with. Some of those people can play more than one note at a time; most can’t. So, there are logistics of, I need some people to play really high, quiet sounds. Who can do that? Ah, s–, I’m using them already for this thing. 

I don’t know if it’s mundane, but it’s kind of utilitarian.

LJN: Let’s talk about Orchestre National de Jazz. What about their musical qualities made them the ideal vehicle for these creations?

SL: I think it’s two things. This ensemble was state-funded; it’s all funded by the French Ministry of Culture. It’s existed since the ‘80s, and they have a lot of financial resources and infrastructure at their disposal.

I don’t think I would have done a big band album otherwise, because I don’t know the scenario where that would have gotten [bankrolled]; who would have paid for it?

You see that with a lot of really accomplished, esteemed musicians. When it comes to doing an album with upwards of 10, 15, 16 musicians, there’s a sort of ceiling they bump into. It has to be something they really prioritise, or they have to do it under not-ideal circumstances – maybe do a live recording.

Because it’s 16 times the appropriate fee for a musician to record an album, you get into between $50-$100,000 very, very quickly. And I don’t have that kind of money, so that’s one thing.

There are a few state-funded [ensembles]. There’s a handful of them in Europe. Germany has a couple – the WDR Orchestra. The one in France is a little bit more geared towards new music and experimentation, and they change directors every five years. So, there’s a new point of view and aesthetic in terms of working with them.

It was a challenge for me – a good challenge. Because I’m so used to handpicking all of the collaborators that I work with for improvised music, whether it be an octet, or Sélébéyone, or Fieldwork with Vijay [Iyer] and Tyshawn [Sorey], or a trio, or a anything like that. That’s kind of the most important compositional decision that you make – who you’re going to work with.

I had a lot of time to go out to Paris and work with the musicians and get to know them – tailor the music to their strengths and make sure they were able to take on what I wanted to do. It ended up being great – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Steve Lehman. Photo credit: Sarah Desage

LJN: Can you talk about the nuts and bolts of the compositions? I love how “Los Angeles Imaginary” kicks off with this staccato, single-note piano line, and it opens a Pandora’s box of harmony.

SL: That’s a good example of a piece that is, in some ways, very straightforward. There’s that opening rhythm – a sort of hiccupping polyrhythm – that goes almost throughout the whole piece, and is sort of unfolded for you in the intro to the piece.

There’s a kind of cycling keyboard line that’s split between an electric, distorted, plucked keyboard sound and an acoustic piano. And then the drums reveal that hiccupping polyrhythm, the bass comes in, and then the chords are these spectral harmonies that are based on specific frequency relationships.

If it’s working well, they don’t sound in tune or out of tune; they sound sort of otherworldly. It’s not like what you played sounds wrong; there’s an internal logic, but it’s a different one than I’m used to hearing.

And those chords – some of the sounds, frequencies and pitches that you hear are generated by a synthesiser, and others are generated by the acoustic instruments in the ensemble.

That’s sort of the piece – and using that to say, “That’ll be an interesting environment for solos.” And then just trying to see how long I can keep that interesting. I think the answer is about six minutes, maybe, which is fine.

LJN: I love that concept of frequency relationships. Can you connect it to another composition?

SL: There’s another piece of mine called “Jeux d’Anches” – it means “play with reeds.” It’s also the name for a reed organ in French.

It starts with woodwind chords that have these jagged edges to them. But they also blend together really well, and the reason for that is frequency relationships.

Because all the notes and frequencies being played by each individual woodwind relate to each other, and are part of a harmonic spectrum of a note that eventually gets played by the bass.

So, each individual frequency is kind of unusual and sticks out. But because they all relate to each other, as a result of the bass note, they fuse together in this interesting way. It kind of sounds like an organ, where there are all these frequencies blending together.

LJN: Which moment on Ex Machina feels like a culmination, or a bridge to the future?

SL: I think the very end – the sort of coda of “Alchimie,” which is the fourth track on the album. The coda has this beautiful balance of really interesting polyrhythms and otherworldly harmonies.

I haven’t really done anything like that. I haven’t been successfully able to marry all those different ideas about rhythm and harmony and instrumentation. And electronics, because there are electronic sounds embedded in there.

Another would be the beginning of “Le Treize Soleils,” which is “The 13 Suns.” That starts out with a sort of flute solo where the flautist, Fanny Ménégoz, interacts with a sort of computer improviser that creates these swirling textures around her. And eventually presents her with the percussive-like sounds of a drum set – a sort of open time that she interacts with.

I think that’s really promising for the future, in terms of the ways that computer-driven improvisation can be stimulating and really cool to listen to.

LINKS: Purchase Ex Machina

Steve Lehman’s website

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