Steve Lehman Does Hip-Hop — in Wolof


Ten years ago, the French saxophonist Maciek Lasserre, who travels and plays extensively in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Tunisia, and Morocco, took some classes at Brooklyn’s School for Improvisational Music with the saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman. Via email from Paris, Lasserre remembers Lehman as a “very generous and clear” teacher and a “high-quality interlocutor on creation and music aesthetic.” The professor was likewise taken with Lasserre’s interest in Senegal’s hip-hop scene. It was the beginning of a dialog between three cities — New York, Paris, and Dakar — and led to Lehman’s striking new album, Sélébéyone, out this month on the visionary New York label Pi Recordings.

The collaboration began when Lehman guested on Lasserre’s 2011 debut album, Eskisse, which featured Senegalese hip-hop duo Da Brains. “I thought it was a
really fresh, original direction,” Lehman tells the Voice from Los Angeles, where he’s just joined the faculty at CalArts. “I eventually said, ‘Man, I’d love to work with you in this specific area. I don’t want to steal your thunder,’ but [Lasserre] was like ‘Let’s go, let’s see what we get into.’ ”

The resulting work — nine pieces, five composed by Lehman, four by Lasserre — is a conversation between techniques: Lehman’s lacerating alto horn vs. Lasserre’s soprano; volleying verses in English and Wolof, a language of Senegal; sampling, drum programming, and electronic effects buttressed by the first-rate rhythm section of Damion Reid (drums), Carlos Homs (piano), and downtown jazz vet Drew Gress (bass). The tidy 41 minutes and change teems with aural layers, an experiment that, despite Lehman’s academic credentials, doesn’t feel inaccessible. It’s tense, too, as the rhythms remain irregular, a constant in Lehman’s music. His tone, way up high in altissimo so that it’s hard sometimes to distinguish from Lasserre’s soprano — as on the track “Dualism” — feels nervy and allergic to saccharin.

And it’s very much a hip-hop record. Lasserre brought in Dakar MC Gaston Bandimic, who raps in Wolof. “Gaston is a brilliant soul and prodigious lyricist,” Lasserre says. “We share a lot. I knew he would perfectly fit in this project.” Lehman also added his own MC, HPrizm (a/k/a High Priest), a founder of the thought-provoking New York hip-hop collective Antipop Consortium; the two have known each other for ten years but never recorded together.

“Things came together organically with Steve and I,” says HPrizm, who has also collaborated with other adventurous jazz musicians like Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Grimes, Vijay Iyer, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. “By design, this particular project allowed for the time and focus to a set of compositions in both a live and studio context that I’ve never had.”

Sélébéyone — “intersection” in Wolof — was mixed by the noted engineer Andrew Wright, who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Just Blaze, and Drake, and has known Lehman since he was six years old. “I just kind of trusted his instincts,” Lehman says of his childhood friend. “He made a lot of the decisions that kept it together,” like choosing what drum machine to use under HPrizm’s and Bandimic’s lyrics in the opening track, “Laamb.” “He was like, ‘I think you want 808 sub bass on here,’ something I never would have thought of.”

A look at the 38-year-old Lehman’s career doesn’t immediately reveal hip-hop predilections: His academic CV is as vast as his discography, and he’s studied with the likes of Jackie McLean, Anthony Braxton (at Wesleyan, where he earned a master’s in composition), the MacArthur Fellowship–winning George Lewis, and pioneering French spectral composer Tristan Murail (the latter two at Columbia, where Lehman received a Ph.D.). But, Lehman says, “just growing up in New York and [on] the East Coast in the Eighties and Nineties, it would be unusual not to have some connection to hip-hop.”

It doesn’t surprise his mentors. Lewis says that his former student — whose dissertation at Columbia was entitled “Liminality as a Framework for Composition: Rhythmic Thresholds, Spectral Harmonies and Afrological Improvisation” — was “a very thorough person who always brought new ideas to the table.” So, he thinks a hip-hop album fits perfectly with Lehman’s musical curiosity. “Based on what I know about Steve, I don’t see any particular anomaly there,” Lewis says. “We don’t discipline our creativity according to genre anymore. Like Muhammad Ali said, we’re free to be who we want.”