Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abîme
Jonathan Finlayson - Trumpet
Mark Shim - Tenor Saxophone
Tim Albright - Trombone
Chris Dingman - Vibraphone
Jose Davila - Tuba
Drew Gress - Bass
Tyshawn Sorey - Drums
Mise en Abîme returns the same personnel as Lehman’s breakout 2009 album Travail, Transformation and Flow. Since then, he’s partnered with Rudresh Mahanthappa for Dual Identity and released an under-appreciated trio album, Dialect Flourescent, on which he radically deconstructed some standards. Mise features a mix of Lehman’s own compositions alongside three Bud Powell tunes and a nod to hip-hop on one track.
The title Mise en Abîme appears to be a play on words combining two concepts, "mise en abyme", a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, appearing to recur infinitely, and “abîme”, the geographical term for a vertical shaft that opens into a network of subterranean passages. The connotation clearly is one of layers spreading in many directions, perhaps a reference to Lehman’s fascination with spectral harmony.
Spectral harmony organizes overtones of different instruments according to their frequencies as opposed to the intervals of a musical scale. Using this technique, along with harmonic movement to different tonal centers, Lehman constructs a shimmering, vibrating sound that incorporates elements of new music, jazz and electronic music.
The combination of Lehman’s ascetic alto, the intricate yet melodic compositions, and the overtones created, particularly by the vibraphone, creates a signature sound. Vibist Chris Dingman plays a key role, prominent in the mix, his dense ringing overtones a continual presence in both solo and ensemble sections.
There’s always been an element of emotional distance in Lehman’s music, but it serves here to create an air of mystery. The combination of the geometric arrangements and ringing vibes create a feeling of suspended animation. The last track, Parisian Thoroughfare Transcription, features Lehman playing over what sounds like samples of distant voice and piano, and comes across as a throwaway compared to what has come before. But it doesn’t distract from the quality of the seven previous tracks.
The fact that Mise is a consolidation of Travail shouldn’t be considered damning with faint praise. It’s a confirmation of Steve Lehman’s talents as conceptualizer and composer, synthesizing influences such as Jackie McLean, Anthony Braxton, spectral composer Tristan Murail, and M-Base. There’s no other group out there that sounds like this.