When Steve Lehman released Travail, Transformation and Flow in 2009, it seemed the composition-PhD candidate at Columbia University (and onetime student of Blue Note legend Jackie McLean) had unified all of his influences. The crew he assembled for the group’s titular Octet — including virtuoso composer-percussionist Tyshawn Sorey — thrummed with new-classical adventurism, but it also cooked. In the intervening four years, Lehman has stayed busy, writing for the International Contemporary Ensemble among others, but some of his most ardent fans have been waiting for another Octet album.
The danger, of course, was that the Octet project wouldn’t feel as revelatory on a subsequent outing. But Mise en Abîme beats the sophomore curse, mostly by presenting an even stronger master class on embracing the American jazz tradition and the contemporary European “art” music scene at once. After a pair of powerhouse, uptempo originals full of crisp solos and fine writing (“Segregated and Sequential” and “13 Colors”), Lehman indulges his serious jones for bebop pianist Bud Powell with the first of three homages — a “transcription” of Powell’s famously through-composed 1953 “Glass Enclosure.”
At first blush, even Powell aficionados may scratch their heads at Lehman’s “Glass Enclosure Transcription,” which doesn’t sound much like an exact copy at all. In fact, the Lehman Octet’s version jumps right over Powell’s famous, regal-sounding fanfare. Things quickly get woolier (and less familiar) from there.
But by taking one of early jazz’s most notoriously improv-free performances as a basis for contemporary soloing, Lehman’s group does useful damage to the notion that Powell’s fan base need be any different than, say, that of Lehman’s fellow Columbia faculty composer Tristan Murail. In the closing two-minutes-and-change of Mise en Abîme‘s penultimate track, “Chimera-Luchini,” the bass and tuba pivot to a quote of rap duo Camp Lo’s 1997′s hit “Luchini (aka This Is It).” As the Octet’s horn section peal out in perfect time atop Sorey’s hyper-kinetic beat-units and Lehman’s ecstatic alto flights, the album’s blend of many discrete traditions sounds like the best kind of musicological argument: the kind you want on repeat.