Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn – ‘The People I Love’ (Album Review)

There’s a funny thing about round numbers and commemorations. People add extra value to big signpost years in the narrative of things, to make them somehow make more sense in the context. Perhaps this is the grasp I’m making as I have fallen for alto saxophonist Steve Lehman’s album, released in his 40th rotation around the sun and his trio of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid’s 10th solar rotation together. Alongside them is pianist Craig Taborn, rounding out this group exceptionally well as they look back and forward, as any commemoration is wont to do, on the new album, The People I Love, out tomorrow on Pi Recordings.

The album’s title is based on a quotation by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in an interview with Jackie McClean– “When I was younger, I thought music came first. And now that I’ve gotten older, I realize it’s only a reflection of the images of the people I love and being with God.” Taking these notions to heart, Lehman’s song choices are fascinating– covering Kenny Kirkland’s “Chance” and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design” from the not so distant past, digging into Autechre’s “qPlay” because modern jazz albums do that now from time to time (though not often enough), dusting off some of his older compositions like “Beyond All Limits” and “Echoes”, stripping things bare with just him and Taborn. The not that old is made new, just as shiny and compelling as the newness already brought to the table. But what really reflects here is the combinations of Lehman’s influences. What makes this album so contemporary is not only what this quartet is saying musically but also on this history it’s writing– speaking in a 100-year-old musical language, talking about how what they have experienced in their time and what they have heard is as much to herald as the prior 60 years.

Of course, one could expect the sharp brilliance that is de rigueur for Lehman, Brewer, and Reid, and the same could be said for how Taborn fits in. Their revisit of “Curse Fraction” is like acknowledging a beautiful mountain vista from afar while recognizing you’re still moving at 80 mph. In all the activity, there still seems to be this sense of space between Taborn’s chords that rings so very clearly that it’s as if the room in which they’re playing is a fifth member of the group. That same beautiful sense of spacing persists in their cover of Autechre’s “qPlay”, with Reid’s drums still going to town. This song is his playground. The fuzziness all over the trio’s cover of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design” is due to it being an edited rehearsal tape, which does a service to the absolute rawness all over the song. Brewer’s solo intro to “Beyond All Limits” uncovers a deeper soul, giving walls off of which the rest of the tune bounces. Their take on Kenny Kirkland’s “Chance” is a most welcome, more conventional tune that feels like the gentle few yards of track at the end of the roller coaster, but it still has its own thrills. All throughout the album in a prelude, interlude, and postlude, Lehman and Taborn alone are playing through shapes together.

If one were to attempt to put this album in a narrative, it would be easy to say that this is the exuberance one would give to material one would want to explore when working with folks for ten years, including a friend who totally gets you. It certainly fits in the context of the album title. These are the recordings of Steve Lehman and the people he loves, and the guy’s got pretty great taste.

The People I Love, the latest album from the Steve Lehman Trio and Craig Taborn, is out tomorrow, August 30th, on Pi Recordings.

Steve Lehman – alto saxophone
Craig Taborn – piano
Matt Brewer – acoustic bass
Damion Reid – drum set