Steve Lehman – ‘Selebeyone’

Sélébeyoné, released two months ago under Pi recordings, does two things really well: it is a better hip-hop album than most of the jazz-centric rap releases and it’s an excellent foray into jazz fusion. Steve Lehman, with principle duties as composer and alto sax, along with vocalists HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic, fuse American, French and Senegalese sounds that, like the band itself, is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Sélébeyoné comes together based upon the strength of the band assembled. Lehman’s student and soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre is the bridge to which HPrizm (formerly High Priest of Antipop Consortium) and Gaston come to the group. Drummer Damion Reid is a known collaborator of Robert Glasper; the rhythm section, including bassist Drew Gress and keyboardist Carlos Homs, are more adept than most of today’s hip-hop producers at keeping the beat fresh and anchoring what’ve easily could’ve become a fusionist jumble.

Most of the songs transition from the hard rhythms accompanying the vocalists to the more free-flowing attitudes of a jazz record, a switch that actually sounds natural rather than forced for novelty. Indeed, the background of each song shifts with each lead; HPrizm on beats that sound classically American hip-hop while Gaston over Lehman’s programming that turns the song lowkey grime. Lehman and Lasserre’s solos take a turn as well, which serves more to highlight the degree to which this band is together rather than make it seem like three distinct songs smashed together. Think of Sélébeyoné as a mashup reverse engineered then deliberately reconstructed.

That said, the album doesn’t escape some of the tropes of the typical jazz/rap collaborations. Spirituality and mysticism feature heavily in the lyrics of HPrizm and Gaston, not at all surprising given their (and Lassere’s) faith in Sufi Islam. There are myriad contemplations of their role in the universe and reaching a higher state of being, but none of the verses delve into the outright paternal preachiness that usually accompany jazz rap, nor the far-out-ness you’d hear from the likes of standard bearers Digable Planets. It remains to be seen whether these lyrics will be better received by pop fans in an era where Kendrick Lamar runs the table, but it is a certainty alternative music fans will delight.

Jazz/rap collabs should’ve reached their useful end by now, with Roy Hargrove and Pino Palladino having mined a lot of solid territory and the numerous volumes of Guru’s Jazzmatazz. Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and Thundercat are all bigger because of their production work within the popular hip-hop world. Yet this work provides a fresh look at the meeting of two without the album riffing into known realms. Comparisons to Bitches Brew are inevitable, due to the sonic landscape, but not as detriment. A certain insufferable hipster segment of the underground music community should fawn over Sélébeyoné because it manages to hit all the benchmarks for accolades, but in this case it is well deserved.

Sélébéyone, the latest album from saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman, is out now on Pi Recordings.

Gaston Bandimic – Vocals (Wolof)
HPrizm — Vocals (English)
Steve Lehman — Alto saxophone
Maciek Lasserre — Soprano saxophone
Carlos Homs — Piano and keyboards
Drew Gress — Acoustic bass
Damion Reid — Drums