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An Artist Embodies an Approach to Music Without Borders


On a recent afternoon at David Geffen Hall, the Latest 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’s “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 can have been unusual for Lincoln Center, it isn’t a shock for Latest York as a complete. In between Charles’s latest piece and the Philharmonic’s 1997 performance of “Skies of America” — a collaboration with the composer-saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his Prime Time ensemble — a broad artistic network has cleared fresh paths for American composers, ones during 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 occur 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 the saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman and the Orchestre National de Jazz with its artistic director, Frédéric Maurin.

The compositions were by Lehman, who played within the ensemble, and Maurin, who conducted. Along with the 15 acoustic players — members of Lehman’s regular ensembles, just like the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and artists of Maurin’s group — each composers also employed one other 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 within the Nineteen Seventies.

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 got here into view within 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, starting with “Los Angeles Imaginary,” about 11 minutes into the video, the keyboardist plays a posh ostinato pattern across two different manuals: one acoustic, one electronic. The riff is just not an obviously danceable one. But after the percussionist is available in — offering a gradual syncopation with the keyboard — the vibe of Latest York’s late Nineties underground hip-hop rears its head.

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

In a recent interview, Lehman recalled studying with Murail and specializing in the boundaries of what listeners might grasp, by way 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 prefer it’s in a tempo versus out of tempo?”

Lehman added that, ever since that point with Murail, he has at all times tried to “exploit those transitions to make music that’s meaningful or exciting to take heed to.” He’s 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 the 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 one more group that he participates in: the international jazz-rap fusion ensemble Sélébéyone.

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

“Xaybu: The Unseen,” offers yet one more option to hear the contemporary cross pollination of classical, rap and jazz. In Lehman’s work “Liminal,” you possibly can hear the influence of spectral harmony on his electronic production. And toward the top of 1 verse from HPrizm, — after the rapper mentions “riding on bare rims” — Lehman’s polyrhythms pile up, making a wild ride even bumpier.

Within the interview, Lehman said that in his work with Sélébéyone, he often samples a few of his classical music. “Any time you hear a harp or anything like that, or some sort of spectral, chamber music chord,” he said, it likely got here from a bit 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 Latest York Philharmonic branch out. (Sélébéyone would sound good within the newly renovated David Geffen Hall, too.)

But no matter 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 attempting to survey the landscape, and determine: Where do I slot in? What am I type of uniquely equipped to contribute? And, in a best-case scenario, sort of add on to those histories.”

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