Steve Lehman: Sélébéyone
In jazz as in any other genre, many are followers and a select few leaders, conceptual firebrands who advance the form in daring and thrilling manner. Saxophonist Steve Lehman very clearly belongs in the latter category, something that became evident upon the release of Mise en Abîme in 2014 (it was subsequently deemed the top jazz album of the year in the NPR Jazz Critics Poll and The Los Angeles Times) and which his latest, Sélébéyone, now renders even more clear. For this new project, the Guggenheim Fellowship recipient has created a riveting cross-pollination between, primarily, modern jazz and underground hip-hop, though elements drawn from Senegalese rap and electronic experimentalism also thread their way into the mix. Jazz and hip-hop are the nucleus around which the elements constellate, but other genres surface, if briefly: prog during the synth-heavy parts of “Origine,” and jungle, which emerges in the light-speed percussive attack within “Hybrid.”
Working with live musicians, rapidly shifting rhythms, and unusual time signatures, Lehman and company arrest the ear with detail-packed settings that leave one dizzied when they're finished. Adding dramatically to the material's impact, the recording features vocals in two languages, in English by HPrizm (aka High Priest, a founding member of Antipop Consortium) and in Wolof by Senegalese rapper Gaston Bandimic, plus the playing of Maciek Lasserre (soprano sax), Carlos Homs (keyboards), Drew Gress (acoustic bass), and Damion Reid (drums) in addition to the leader's alto sax. There's an intensely cerebral dimension to Lehman's creative process—he received his doctorate in Music Composition from Columbia University in 2012—that's evident throughout Sélébéyone.
Lest anyone think the release is his first foray into hip-hop, it's actually a natural step for a musician whose octet earlier tackled an arrangement of Wu-Tang Clan's “Living In the World Today,” among others. It bears worth mentioning, also, that credit for the album should be extended to all involved, Lasserre above all: he composed a number of pieces on the album and introduced Lehman to the Senegalese hip-hop scene in 2010. The opening numbers are representative in spirit and style of the album: against a loping, piano-sprinkled backdrop, HPrizm and Bandimic trade off during “Laamb,” the latter following the former's “Now the mask is off, the masquerade is over” with a biting attack, Bandimic in turn followed by Lehman's inspired riffology. And more happens in the second cut, the stunning “Are You In Peace?,” than on other artists' entire albums: with a wailing sax somersaulting alongside a hypnotically descending double-sax figure, the MCs alternate ferocious verses with sax soloing that manages to both funky and geometrically angular.
Admittedly, Sélébéyone doesn't arrive without precedents. Listening to the album, Greg Osby's 3-D Lifestyles begins to seem all the more visionary when one considers its fusion of jazz, rap, and hip-hop appeared in 1993, and some tracks on Lehman's release call to mind Gary Thomas's The Kold Kage, the tenor sax's own merger of jazz and hip-hop. Tricky times signatures, synthesizers, complex beats, and rapping (by Joe Wesson and Thomas himself on The Kold Kage) are a few of the characteristics that Lehman's album shares with Thomas's 1991 set. An echo of Strata Institute's Cipher Syntax also surfaces when Lehman and Lasserre duel it out on “Laamb” much like Osby and Steve Coleman did on that pivotal 1989 release. But if Sélébéyone isn't sui generis, that doesn't make it any less riveting. It's the kind of cutting-edge recording that's impossible to ignore; so much is happening at any given moment that the idea of doing something else while the music plays becomes impossible. Only time will tell if the one-two punch of Mise en Abîme and Sélébéyone constitutes Lehman's peak. For now, we can say that his cylinders—compositional, performative, and conceptual—are firing at a remarkably advanced level. Mesmerizing, thrilling, and exhilarating—all such descriptors apply in this case.