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Fall Arts Preview

Saxophonist Steve Lehman feels the love

Steve Lehman (center) with drummer Damion Reid (left) and bassist Matt Brewer.
Steve Lehman (center) with drummer Damion Reid (left) and bassist Matt Brewer.John Rogers

How admired by critics is Steve Lehman, the alto saxophonist, composer, and professor at the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts? His octet album “Mise en AbÎme” finished first in the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll as that year’s best album, which was followed several months later by his topping the rising star categories of jazz artist and alto saxophonist in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll.

Lehman was also on the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll best album as a member of Vijay Iyer’s sextet, which won for “Far From Over.” But for all those critical accolades, Lehman, who’ll lead his longtime trio with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid at the Regattabar on Sept. 26, remains relatively unknown.


That could change with the release last month of “The People I Love,” on which the trio is joined by pianist Craig Taborn. The album’s title is taken from a remark by the late vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson: “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.”

Lehman acknowledges that there are several ways in which the title applies: alto sax-led quartets that inspired him to try his hand recording with one, the three musicians whose pieces he’s chosen to cover on the album (Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff “Tain” Watts), mentors like Hutcherson and Jackie McLean, and the trio mates he’ll have with him in Cambridge.

But mostly he’s thinking of his wife and young children.

“It’s not a particularly novel sentiment, but just having kids and all of that stuff, that’s really my headset,” explains Lehman by phone from Chicago. “Music is what I do. That’s my life’s work. But ultimately it’s kind of a reflection of other things that are actually bigger than that. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it like that when I was in my 20s: something being bigger than music. I just wanted to frame things ever so slightly in that context and see what came of it.”


Lehman, who turned 41 on Sept. 1, doesn’t perform much in Boston, but he has New England roots. His family moved to Hartford from Brooklyn when Lehman was 8, and he’s a graduate of Milton Academy, having been lured there in part by its jazz program.

Lehman returned to Connecticut to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition at Wesleyan University, where Anthony Braxton was among his professors, while concurrently commuting to Hartford to study with McLean at the Hartt School of Music. He completed his PhD in music composition from Columbia University in 2012, where his primary mentors were George Lewis and Tristan Murail.

That same year, Lehman released “Dialect Fluorescent,” his 10th album as a leader or coleader. That first trio album included compositions by John Coltrane, Duke Jordan, and McLean. But on “The People I Love” Lehman is drawing from more contemporary composers.

“I did make a conscious effort to highlight people that I look up to and are revered in their own right, but sort of shift the emphasis to modern masters,” says Lehman. Rosenwinkel, for example: “Kurt’s a really great composer, not somebody that’s associated very commonly with my circle of musicians.”


The Rosenwinkel tune “A Shifting Design” is the only one on the new album that Taborn doesn’t perform on. “We love playing that piece trio,” explains Lehman, “and we just happened to have this rehearsal take that I thought was really magical, so we ended up using that one on the album.”

One of the defining characteristics of Lehman’s music is its rhythmic complexity. Taborn was a good fit there as well, having worked with each of the trio’s members in other contexts and having already studied some of Lehman’s sheet music for his octet because of the similarities in their approaches to rhythm.

“There was a simpatico in terms of how some of the stuff conceptually comes together,” explains Taborn. “So it wasn’t that foreign to me how he was spelling out a lot of these things, and that made it a little bit easier to jump in with those guys. I’m not saying it was easy, but at least this isn’t a new concept to me, where I think with some people it might be.”

Taborn won’t be with the trio in Cambridge; he’ll be en route to Oslo for a solo concert honoring the 50th anniversary of ECM Records. But the new album already has new versions of music Lehman originally wrote for and recorded on albums with his octet and a previous quintet.

“Those are pieces that are really very distinctive, and the treatment that they get in the trio turns them into new vehicles,” says Lehman. “I am a big proponent of trying to write music that rewards repeated investigation, and that you can revisit and get something new from over the course of a lot of years.”


Steve Lehman Trio

At Regattabar, Cambridge, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20-$25, 617-395-7757, www.regattabarjazz.com

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.