I Got A Kick Against Modern Jazz

steve-lehman-octet-2014-press-650x400Last night Kish and I and our friends the Soon-To-Be-Someone’s-In-Laws went to the Wexner Center Performance Space for a performance of the Steve Lehman Octet.  The group is a heralded new force on the jazz scene and is headed by Steve Lehman, a composer and saxophonist.  At the performance, I learned that even where every one of the members of a group is obviously an incredibly accomplished musician, capable of doing extraordinary things with their instrument, they can produce music that just isn’t to my liking.

The SLO has released two albums that have been as widely acclaimed as jazz recordings can be.  A Wall Street Journal article about them described the music as follows:

“The octet has a mesmerizing sound. Shimmering harmonies are densely layered, but in a way that seems transparent. There is a three-dimensionality to it that makes it seem as if there are many different lines being played at once, yet the music is surprisingly coherent. The rhythms are fluid and catchy.”

At last night’s performance, I got the densely layered part, and the three-dimensionality, because there definitely were instruments playing discrete pieces that looked to combine into a whole.  But the “catchy rhythms” part I missed.  The music was interesting and had a certain power, but as I observed to Mr. STBSIL I didn’t walk out whistling a tune that had been performed.  Instead, it seemed like the musicians were more interested in probing the outer boundaries of sounds that could be produced by their instruments, alone and in combination.  The result was just too inaccessible and discordant to my uneducated ear.

The fault obviously must be mine, because the Steve Lehman Octet gets accolades from every quarter.  I like a lot of jazz, and I found myself wishing that the group, and other modern jazz groups, would try to play more tuneful music, a la Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and early Miles Davis, that wouldn’t make me work so freaking hard.  Of course, that’s selfish, because I’m sure that gifted musicians want to push the envelope of the instruments and their sound and their own capabilities.

The sweet spot is hit, though, only when the composer and players’ desire to press forward into new territory intersects with the sensibilities of even the less sophisticated members of the audience — and not every musician is aiming for that sweet spot.

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