Steve Lehman Made a Solo EP in His Car, For a New Series on Pi Recordings, 'This Is Now'

Apr 17, 2020

Steve Lehman, the acclaimed alto saxophonist, needed a place to play.

For over a month now, he has been operating under conditions familiar to many of us. He and his wife live in a Los Angeles apartment with their two young children, and every day is a negotiation between their home schooling, online lessons with his students at CalArts, cooking and various other tasks.

“Even in normal circumstances, it’s a bit of a struggle,” Lehman reports, speaking by phone. “Right now, I wouldn’t say there’s much of a balance. My own personal work is getting short shrift, and that’s sort of what led to this little EP.”

The EP he’s referring to is called Xenakis and the Valedictorian: a collection of 10 concise pieces, most under a minute long, that Lehman made in the mobile studio also known as his car. To be more specific: he recorded all of this material using the Voice Memo app on an iPhone, in the front seat of his 2011 Honda CRV. Due out next Friday on Pi Recordings, it will inaugurate a digital-only series the label is calling “This Is Now.” (The series has a subtitle, “Love in the Time of COVID,” with a wink and a nod in the direction of Gabriel García Márquez.)

The economic impact of the coronavirus, which affects every sector of society, has been especially rough on working musicians, who rely heavily on touring income. Seth Rosner, Pi’s co-owner, felt the need to do something. “We can’t go into the studio,” he says, “but we thought that there’s probably an opportunity to push some stuff out and send those proceeds to the artists.”

Every two weeks, Pi Recordings will post a new release to its Bandcamp page, with 100% of proceeds going directly to the artists. Future installments will feature music by pianists Vijay Iyer and David Virelles (Pi alumni who have also recorded for ECM); percussionist Tyshawn Sorey; and a duo of pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Dan Weiss. Other artists may come from beyond the label’s orbit.

For Lehman — whose most recent Pi release, The People I Love, was a standout album of 2019 — the new EP was born out of necessity. “Just saying, ‘OK, I can reliably set aside an hour every day,’” he explains. “Let me pick something concrete to work on, and not be too hard on myself but also follow that work.”

Under the strange but universal rules of social distancing, Lehman decided that the car was a self-contained space that could work. After driving to various locations with mixed results, he settled on the carport behind his apartment complex. (His wife, filmmaker Olivia Newman, snuck up on one of these sessions and posted a playful “gotcha” video to Instagram.)

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Family Quarantine: Day 15... Steve’s new studio. #coronalife

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Mar 28, 2020 at 6:37pm PDT

While the conditions were quirky, solo saxophone is a format that Lehman was primed to take seriously. Anthony Braxton, a hero and a mentor to him, made an epochal solo saxophone recording, For Alto, just over half a century ago. “He’s the one who established that could be a genre unto itself, at least as far as the saxophone is concerned,” Lehman says.

“Evan Parker’s solo recordings are also a really big touchstone for me — in a similar way, pushing me to think I might get into a space where I didn’t even know the saxophone could sound like that. So that’s somewhere in my list of priorities, to see if I could arrive at timbres and sonorities that really feel like discovery.”

Some pieces on Xenakis and the Valedictorian work through a particular construct. “Flutter,” which premieres here, is self-explanatory. “Max” involved playing as loud as possible, savoring the distortion that comes when you push into the red. A piece called “CR-V” features a range of techniques, taking advantage of the intimate recording conditions, so that his breathing and key clicks and the thump of the saxophone pads in their cups all become a part of the sound design.

“Two Gears Thirteen Satellites,” another premiere, began with a more thematic premise. “At a certain point I’m improvising on the chord changes to John Coltrane’s composition ‘Satellite,’” Lehman says. “I approached it at two tempos, and two slightly different energy levels, with part of it in a 13/16 meter.”

And the EP’s evocative title? It’s a reference to Lehman’s mother, who had been her high school valedictorian, and who introduced him to a lot of adventurous music, including the work of Iannis Xenakis (and Anthony Braxton, for that matter).

“My mom is turning 80 on April 25,” Lehman says. “She lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to travel, that’s what led me to start compiling these recordings, to present it to her on the occasion of her birthday.”

Xenakis and the Valedictorian releases April 24 on Pi Recordings’ Bandcamp page