Steve Lehman is, as described by The Guardian, "one of the transforming figures of early 21st century jazz". He is a saxophonist, performer, composer, scholar and educator whose achievements are seriously outstanding. As a Fulbright scholar with a PhD in composition from Wesleyan University he's been working with big names such as Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Anthony Braxton, Meshell Ndegeocello. He also wrote pieces for chamber and orchestra ensembles and taught at Wesleyan University, The Royal Academy of Music in London, and Columbia University. His previous album Travail, Transformation & Flow was chosen as the number one jazz album of the year by The New York Times, while his latest work Mise en Abîme was also called (surprise, surprise) the number one jazz album of the year by NPR Music and The Los Angeles Times. With Steve on alto saxophone and electronics, Mark Shim on tenor saxophone, Johnatan Finslayson on trumpet, Tim Albright on trombone, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Jose Davila on tuba, Drew Gress on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the latest album really is a piece of art. It features brilliant use of electronics and a specially designed vibraphone that gives jazz and composition a fresh dimension. I'm really excited about sharing this little conversation. Enjoy!

Hi Steve, how are you? What has been on your schedule lately?

I've mostly been working on new music for 2015. Writing some new things for the octet. Getting ready for a new project with two experimental hip-hop MCs – one from NYC and one from Senegal. And then taking care of my 2-year-old son :).

After reading quite a bit about your professional life I got the feeling that you're often classified as a musician who's mostly creating in jazz and experimental jazz, in spite of all of your engagement in electronic and impro. After all the traditions that you studied and drew inspiration from, how would you categorize yourself?

I'm very lucky in that I've been embraced and supported by a lot of different communities of musicians – jazz musician; musicians interested in computer-human interaction; contemporary classical musicians; hip-hop musicians, etc. So, for the time being, I feel pretty free to simply pursue the music that I'm most excited about.  

As a Fulbright scholar with a PhD in composition you have quite an academic path behind you. What were some of the most important ideas or knowledge that you acquired from it?

I don't know if I can sum that up very succinctly. But, suffice to say that studying music, playing music, and composing music, in both formal and informal settings has been of great value to me.

You've collaborated with many brilliant artists, including your own quintet/octet (Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, Jonathan Finlyason) and on your own as well. Do these different contexts (collaborations vs. solo) influence your work, and if they do, in what way? 

Yes, certainly the people you work with have an enormous effect on your music. And deciding who to collaborate with is a really important compositional act. 

You've given us the ground breaking Travail, Transformation and Flow in 2009 and now you've struck again with the same octet with Mise en Abîme. In what aspects does Mise En Abîme differ from Travail, Transformation and Flow? 

Well, in the most basic sense, Mise en Abîme, incorporates live electronics and a re-tuned vibraphone on many of the compositions. So that's a good start.

Mise en Abîme gave us a new perspective on the vibraphone with its quarter-tone intervals, and you also added some electronic effects to a few songs. Both of these expand our comprehension of what a jazz recording can sound like. What did you try to achieve with these tweaks to your music? 

Well, as mentioned in my earlier response, part of the decision to integrate those elements into the music was made so that I would be forced to do something new with this group of musicians. But there is also a lot about the nature of the nuts and bolts of the music – the work with harmony, with rhythm, with timbre – that led naturally to these newer elements.

Your past year looks like a seriously creative and diverse. How are you balancing between all these collaborations and projects? What does your chill-out time looks like?

Yes, it was a very busy year. And I'm grateful for that. My chill-out time is usually spent with my family and my friends. I follow American football pretty closely and I'm trying to learn how to cook a little bit too.

What's currently on your playlist?

Nothing special. It changes a lot. 

Which do you prefer, coffee or tea?


You'll be performing in Ljubljana soon. What can we expect to hear from Steve Lehman Octet?

We'll mostly be performing music from Mise en Abîme. We'll do a few things from the octet's first album. And then hopefully some stuff we haven't recorded yet.

Thanks so much for your time and answer, I really appreciate it!

Photo via:

The Steven Lehman Octet will start their Tour Europe on the 1st of February in Porto and continue their way to Ljubljana (clap your hands!). So all of my Slovenian peeps will be able to see him on February 3rd at Cankarjev Dom. Don't miss out, I'm sure it will be another awesome jazz evening.



  1. nice interview, talented guy.

  2. I really like your post! :)

    Come check out my blog:

  3. great interview!:) I definitely need to check out his work!