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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Lehman vs Lazro & Léandre - A clash of two visions of music?

By Stef

I would like to have this discussion, and hear other opinions. The fact that Steve Lehman's "Mise en Abîme" is so highly rated in many end-of-year lists, including on this blog, but not only here, also on NPR and some other specialised jazz publications ranked the album in the number one spot, is a little surprising to me.

Lehman's album is good, without question. But only that. His concept is clear, the execution fabulous. On his "Travail, Transformation & Flow" of 2009, I wrote the following : "The overall complexity seems to have a suffocating effect on the liberating sounds that I would expect from jazz improvisation, here pushing the musicians to the kind of concentrated thinking that kills emotional delivery. There is, as a consequence, insufficient fluency, nor lyricism", and I could say the same about "Mise en Abîme". It sounds harsh, but it isn't. You cannot but admire the compositional complexity, including the shifting rhythms, the tight arrangements and the post production. You cannot but admire the great performance of all musicians, and of Tyshawn Sorey in particular. But then what? Art is more than skillfully organised sound. Art is more than perfect delivery.

Then listen to Daunik Lazro's and Joëlle Léandre's "Hasparren", which is almost the mirror image of "Mise en Abîme". And I chose this album because it came on my number one rank as album of the year. On this album, you have two musicians who improvise without any plan at all. Their sounds could go in any direction. Yet they don't. They interact freely, but in a focused way. They make you hear things behind the music. They offer authenticity of voice, depth of emotion, moving the listener from contemplative moments to instants of great agitation and nervousness, and you are even shaken at times, obliged to listen to things you may have wanted to avoid, but here you have no choice. You're in it. And you're part of it. You have no choice. It's gripping. It's true music.

Lehman keeps the listener at a distance. There is no other way. You are forced to watch the proceedings with your cognitive capabilities. It is cerebral music. You are stunned and perplexed by the complexity and the cleverness of what you hear. You are forced into admiration by the skills and you are forced reflect on it, all the time. Lehman seems to say: 'look at me, look at what we're doing'. The listener is kept at bay. He has no role to play.

Lazro and Léandre invite you in. There is also no other way, apart from turning of the music. There is only one way you can listen to this music, that is emotionally. How they do things is irrelevant. It's how it touches you, how it sounds. The purity of it. Because they have stripped the music of all irrelevancy. Done away with meter, with themes and structure and such. Done away with everything that could impede on the freedom of their authentic expression, unadultered and raw and pure and sensitive. The difficulty of that is beyond comparison. This can only be done by the most talented musicians. You have to be your instrument, so to speak, or your instrument becomes you. And then you dialogue, then you interact, challenge, reinforce, change and go deeper. And if this is done well, it resonates with the listener, at a depth that is beyond the music, that is beyond words. Call it an aesthetic experience, call it magic or even mystical, but it is in any case not cognitive. Your brain and your knowledge and your cognitive appreciation have nothing to do with it. Nothing.

Lehman puts music back into a straight-jacket, stifling and suffocating. Lazro and Léandre make it breathe, give it freedom, liberate the listener.

Don't misunderstand me. Lehman does a great thing : he is looking for new form. He is trying out new things. And that by itself deserves applause. He is not afraid to venture into new spaces. Yet he stays within the idiom of the jazz of the fifties (and in this case deliberately). The jazz that Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and John Coltrane wanted to move away from. Their aspiration was to get music out of the confines of form, and entertainment, and set it free, expansive, majestic and spiritually ... and turn it into true art, as do Lazro & Léandre.

I welcome anybody with the opposing view to send in a reaction, and we will publish it too. You can send it to


Anonymous said...

A thought, simple or complex, can be very emotional, i.e. produces strong emotions. Hence, a "cerebral music" likewise.

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

I don't have the Lazro-Leandre yet, so can't comment on that.

But my favourite piece on the Lehman is the final one. It's a very simple piano piece with the other instruments providing more of a background sound. Interspersed are snippets of an interview with Bud Powell. It's very simple, beautiful and touching. It really captures the sadness of Bud's life. I think this fits with what Stef is saying. Stepping away from the complexity makes for a beautiful moment.

But having said that, I do still like this album a lot. I love trying to follow the tricky compositions and seeing where they are heading.

My thought after listening to Mise En Abime a few times is that I'd like to hear him on a solo album or with just a drummer.

Colin Green said...

Perhaps to state the obvious, but I'm not sure there's any clash of visions here, just two different approaches from the myriad of options available. It might be said that we are living in an age after the end of styles proper, and that styles and techniques can now be adopted a little like the old Woolworths’ pick’n’mix sweet counter.

In fact the approach of Lehman and the pairing of Lazro and Leandre are rather more considered than that, and as with any music, the first and possibly most important question is: by what criteria is this music to be judged – what are they trying to do and how successful is it? Clearly, they're approaching matters from rather different directions, and although one might have more sympathy with one over the other – or prefer one to the other – it would be a mistake to judge one according to the other. This is one of the most frequent errors we make as listeners, possibly because trying to work out what musicians are trying to achieve is often far from straightforward.

I like both these albums – I can swap hats quite easily - but one thing they have in common is an approach to sound and texture that has more to do with classical modernism than a lot of jazz. Try listening to Ligeti, Birtwistle, Carter, Boulez, Ferneyhough and others. I'm never quite sure how many of the reviewers and readers of the blog listen to that kind of music – most seem to be from a background of guitar-based music of one form or another. It's probably the presence of the vibraphone, but “segregated and sequential” reminds me of Boulez’ “Le Marteau Sans Maitre”:

and certain aspects of Leandre’s playing, works of Xenakis for cello:

Antonio said...

It seems I tend to agree with Colin quite often, should I be worried? :-)

Your observations regarding the links of this music with classical modernism is spot on. I think we're seeing the sort of "complete freedom" in music today that is not necessarily reflected in the music itself, but it's rather tied to the freedom of choice when concepts and approaches are concerned. Anything goes! Want to play improvisations over a composed "classical" piece using electronic effects and screeching saxophones? Sure, why not! (See: Jorrit Dijkstra's Music for Reeds and Electronics)

I think that's part of what Lehman is doing, using a classical modern framework to try and create something ingenious by improvising around it. It might not be as free sounding as other albums which are not bound to this sort of a formal basis, but maybe it's not even trying to be all that?

Oh, and I do love the composers you've mentioned, as well as others such as Messiaen and Gubaidulina.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, everyone. A few thoughts --

Most critics who rate the record very highly, find the music to be very organic sounding and very natural sounding. Perhaps Stef can elaborate on why it feels stiff to him and loose to so many others.

The idea that improvised music which involves a pre-defined structure and an audible pulse is from the 1950s is a very 1960s perspective isn't it? I believe Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman (Prime Time), Steve Coleman, and David Murray would beg to differ with Stef here.

Don't know how much musical training Stef has, but I'm not convinced he knows what's improvised/free and what's not. And what might be so complex about this music. Much of it is 4/4. And much of it sounds freely improvised to me. The amazing saxophone duo at the end of Codes between Shim and Lehmann for example.

Free Improvised music and the Vision Festival scene and the extended technique European scene is incredibly rich and should be celebrated! And it's clear that these musics are closer to Stef's heart. But for the sake of credibility, we need to move beyond a place where we hear something as stiff and/or unemotional if someone isn't over blowing their saxophone or playing an extended technique. Or if, God forbid, they play in time.

The vast majority of critics seems to have moved beyond this point of view. Hopefully more will follow.

Justin Robinson

Colin Green said...

> It seems I tend to agree with Colin quite often, should I be worried?

Yes, something of a first - consult your doctor at the earliest opportunity.

Stef said...

Thanks for all the reactions and comments. I did not want to judge (who would I be to do that?) but just to compare approaches, and emphaise which I liked best, and which probably fits best with this blog's overall positioning. But again, we're all for different perspectives and wealth of ideas.

Stefan said...

There's nothing wrong with disagreeing. I find it odd though that you felt a need to publicly question everyone else's opinion. Leandre is an excellent artist as well and I enjoyed her album, for different reasons. But comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges.

Fergus said...

What if Lazro and Leandre were just "playing" on the free, and Lehman on the composed? Could these positions related to authenticity - i.e. role-play - be inverted? I have been listening and koving so-called free jazz for a decade, but the modernist thirst for the proper in all its guises (free, out, spiritual) does the wonderfully ironic job of stilting the very possibility of the music to be just that, before its inception. But if we begin to talk about music criticism as a construct, we don't get where we want to be, which is talking the music "in itself", beyond the words we apply to it... hence the (un) critical binary constructs that plague this and most kinds of musical analysis. But i don't want to come across as dismissive of Stef's analysis or the opinions above - in fact they have collectively taken something of an arc that reads almost musically. I just want to draw attention to the frustration that all of us seem to be experiencing, and perpetuating, when we fall into this fantasy of the proper in relation to an art form that lives on the the very play of categorization - whether that is music as 'in' to that 'out' or vice versa or vice versa or...

Anonymous said...

I can confirm that i love Lehman's music and am truly moved by it in a visceral way. His solos really speak to me. I find his music to be totally engaging. It gets me going. I'm not some pseudo intellectual sitting at home jerking off over perceived 'complex' or 'technical' or 'intellectual' music and feeling smug about it. But i guess that's the sort of thing that the general public has been saying about fans of jazz/improv for decades now so it's nothing new. I love this music. Each to each their own. That's all i wanted to say really. Cheers, Chris P.

Anonymous said...


The "approach" that "fits best with this blogs overall positioning" is probably the one that was voted #1, once all of the contributors to this blog made their top 10 pics for 2014, no? Or do you just feel everyone was brainwashed, except you?

AGM said...

I've seen both these are artists in concerts several times and have had a chance to talk with them and listen to their records. For me, they are different sides of the same coin; they are not mutually exclusive. I can celebrate w=them as they are, but I would also be fascinated if their approaches could be melded. Re: Lehman, keep in mind that his teachers were Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, and I think his approach has always been to find a way to negotiate their twin influences.

Anonymous said...

There are several recordings of Lehmann playing solo and/or duo with drums, bass, etc. One simply has to look for them. He recently released a free improvised duo with bass player Stephen Crump. Also his trio with Mark Dresser and Pheroan akLaff is superb. I would go so far to say that Lehmann can play the style of Leandre, but Leandre hasn't documented anything as structurally complex and new as Lehman. Thus, no surprise that he wins this poll and so many others.

Honkermann said...

I also find "Mise en Abyme" a stiff-sounding record. It is, as Stef notes, beautifully executed. All the players are first-rate. The sonic blur provided by the the microtonal vibes is distinctive and alluring.

But the record does not feel like a jazz record, in that there seems to little individual freedom, and little dynamic group interplay. It is too tightly structured to be jazz. Jazz celebrates risk-taking, happy accidents, and collective communication. I don't hear these strategies on this record.

Improvised music can be a political art form, in that each musician enacts his freedom and individuality , while supporting his/her comrades.

"Mise en Abyme" is instead, the sound of Steve Lehman giving orders to his employees. I like and respect this music, but I do not love it.

Lee said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post the past few days, because I consider Lehman one of the new wave of revolutionary saxophonists (in a group of folks like Ornette Coleman, Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill). I don't hear stiffness when I listen to this record, at least not in the sense that everything is rigid and/or unemotional. Just for kicks, go through this exercise: queue "Alloy" from his previous octet record, his recent trio album (Dialect Fluorescent), and from his earlier quintet record (Artificial Light). When I do this, all the energy and thrill I get from the more open trio setting, I can still hear that in the tighter arrangement of the octet. Granted, this track is one of the absolute highlights of Travail, Transformation, and Flow, but I think the comparison in different settings is useful for opening up to Lehman's particular style.

Anonymous said...

Great album. But a little overrated in my opinion. Frist of all I generaly dont like live Electronics - dont Think it ads anything musical !.
Many of the tracks are a bit similar - uptempo, that said the playing is super especially soreys drumming.
Still the Music is very forward looking - great compositions.
It seems that many like the last track - and I totally disagree I really find the track bad.