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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Steve Lehman with Orchestre National de Jazz – Ex Machina (Pi Recordings, 2023)

A relentlessly innovative saxophonist who must always face the challenge of doing something he hasn’t already accomplished, Steve Lehman once again breaks new ground on his latest, Ex Machina, a big-band effort that makes superb use of electronics to augment the composer’s vision. Joined by the Orchestre National de Jazz, Lehman relishes the larger palette he is afforded and the larger spectrum of harmonic possibilities that ensue. But it’s in the marvelous interactions between the orchestra and the electronics that the music possesses its rapturous magic, offering yet another glimpse into Lehman’s unique genius.

The Orchestre National de Jazz, led by Frédéric Maurin, is perfectly suited for this kind of a project: its adventurous spirit has given it a prominent role in French jazz, amenable to experiments involving a variety of musical idioms, from rock to free improvisation to electronic music. Completing the picture are Jérôme Nika and Dionysios Papanikolaou, who provide an electronic interface developed at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique), founded by Pierre Boulez in 1977. Nika and Papanikolaou are charged with overseeing the computer-driven contributions to the music—which chiefly involve the computer interface reacting in real time to the musicians’ various improvisational moves, which in turn opens up additional pathways for the ensemble to pursue. It’s a lot to take in, to be sure, but fortunately one needn’t delve too deeply into the arcana of the music in order to appreciate its power. In fact, the recording is perhaps best experienced when one forgets how it is created, because it certainly stands on its own as a compelling artistic accomplishment.

The first several tracks bear all the hallmarks of Lehman’s recent work, such as his Xaybu: The Unseen, featuring his avant jazz-meets Senegalese hip-hop ensemble Sélébéyone ( The fractured rhythms, otherworldly harmonies and propulsive intensity are all present here, with the additional heft of the larger ensemble giving them an even greater urgency, and the electronic textures inhabiting the space right alongside the human-generated ones. Lehman’s tart, pugnacious alto sax blazes a trail through all of it, as on the pulse-quickening opening track, “39,” while Chris Dingman’s vibes on “Chimera” and “Alchimie” are shadowed by a gauzy, ethereal layer of sound that seems to energize the ensemble behind him.

When the album slackens the pace a bit there are other layers revealed. The harmonic density on “Ode to akLaff” is especially striking, with the ensemble’s voicings dramatically enhanced by the electronic textures, while pianist Brudo Ruder’s and drummer Rafaël Koerner’s punchy statements help ground the piece in something a bit more earthy. Maurin’s compositions on the last portion of the disc, “Speed-Freeze (Parts 1 and 2)” and “LeSeuil (Parts 1 and 2)” are especially weighty with mood and atmosphere, as the ensemble carefully works its way through its elaborate dialogue with its non-human partner.

Ironically, one of the album’s most compelling tracks is the one least-obviously accompanied by electronics: Lehman’s “Jeux d’Anches,” which has a big-band intensity fueled by fantastic ensemble playing and an especially vigorous solo by Jonathan Finlayson. It reminds us that for all of Lehman’s undeniable innovation, he still manages to keep at least a foot (or toe, perhaps) in jazz’s traditional elements. But one can’t deny that Lehman’s creativity is what is on full display here, as he makes a distinctive and memorable contribution to shaping the possibilities of large-ensemble improvisation.