Saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is one of those new breeds of contemporary musicians. As a jazzman he's played with everyone from Vijay Iyer to Dave Burell. He's studied with both Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton, and recorded a handful of records as a leader or co-leader; he is a Fulbright scholar and has taught in Paris. His album titles -- like this one -- sound like the titles of doctoral dissertations: Demian as a Posthuman, anyone? All of that said, Lehman could throw down on the horn and write some exciting music for a band that makes it spark and fire. Chris Dingman on vibes, Drew Gress on bass, drummer Tyshawn Sorey (who nails all kinds of breakbeats in this set), and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson work with Lehman's alto in scattering post-bop notions off a wall filled with tough new vanguard tricks, but which are all kept in tight rein by the compositions themselves. While these tunes don't exactly sing, they can and do swing, in places. In others they scatter, punch, kick, and dart here and there at a moment's notice, sometimes quicker, sometimes slower. Themes like that of the title track juxtapose thematic constructions and taut melodic invention along several planes at once in a metonymic manner -- it's not a long, single line in linear horizontal fashion, but in linear fashion, period, using all the referents of what came before for what comes after. The vibes add both color and punch the rhythm section, as well as act as a melodic extension of three different themes put into play by Lehman and Finlayson. "Open Music," introduced by some stellar snare work by Sorey and Finlayson, creates a series of contrapuntal lines that Gress comes in to play between as a balancing act. The horns don't enter for almost a minute and then scalar counterpoint in call and response becomes the beginning of a linguistic exercise that actually spits fire, an uneasy tension and mild dissonance that leads into the frame of a tune that gets worked out in the spaces between the various lyric themes being stated. Quite impressive, and Sorey is all killer on the kit, keeping it not only moving, but flowing, jumping off, coming back, and then further pushing Finlayson to put more and more chime on that vibe.
Other tracks, such as "Check This Out," have deep, furrowed knotty lines for the front line to play, with a kind of opaque harmonic terrain employed by Finlayson. Gress takes all this in stride and he and Sorey keep it pushing, making sure this somewhat academic music doesn't get bogged down in its sophistication and braininess. As the improvisation makes clear here, and virtually everywhere else on this fine album, the language of jazz and its tradition is the great equalizer. Lehman chooses to use it in the compositions themselves, sure, but more than this the players are all free to use and reference all parts of it; they speak to one another through history, space, and time as well as in the immediacy of dynamic and often frenetic communication. On Meaning is enjoyable on a purely physical level for the engagement of the players and the action, of which there is plenty, but the sense of sheer musicality at work here is often breathtaking. Perhaps the biggest plus for the listener is that while the intellectual and technical acumen here is rigorously high, the way this set comes off is immediate, live, as if the studio weren't even part of the proceedings.