When he was a student at the Hartt School of Music, trumpeter Tommy Lehman occasionally joined the legendary late-night jam sessions at Small’s jazz club in Manhattan. One night immersed in a solo with his eyes closed he opened his eyes for a moment and found himself face-to-face with the late trumpet player Roy Hargrove, who was sitting in the second row.
Remembering the solo, Lehman said with a laugh, “It sounded terrible,” adding, “I’ll always try my best though. Even if I’m sounding sad, I’m gonna give it everything I have.”
Back in his native northeast Ohio, Lehman is giving it everything he has these days, seemingly playing with everyone everywhere. His latest venture is a new recording, Uplift, which be available on Dec. 21 on Lehman’s Bandcamp page and which he’ll celebrate with a release show at BLU Jazz+ in Akron.
The self-released Uplift features an all-NEO band of Andru Senpai on keyboards and effects, bassist Smokeface and Gabe Jones on drums. Augmented by saxophonist Nathan-Paul Davis, the quartet will be on stage for the release show. “We built the tracks out from the initial sessions in January, and then Andru and myself did a lot of post-production,” Lehman said on a video call from his Akron home. “It’s got a lot of synthesizers but, we’ve been doing that for a long time.”
“It’s not a traditional jazz sound at all,” Lehman said, but that only applies if you take a narrow view of the tradition. Trumpet contemporaries of Lehman’s such as Theo Croker, Chief Adjuah and the slightly older Nicholas Payton have been combining danceable beats, chiming Rhodes piano and hip-hop production techniques to make fresh sounds that have one foot in the dance club and the other in the jazz club. The godfather of this style? That would be Roy Hargrove.
The roots of the Uplift band go back a long way. “I’ve been playing with Andru for 10 years,” Lehman said. “We met in the Tri-C jazz studies program when we were both 18 and then we moved to Connecticut together to go to Hartt. This band started as an effort to play with Gabe, because I had always played with Andru and Smokeface. I set up a few gigs, and from the first time we played together, we knew we had something special there.”
Lehman brought a book of six originals to the initial sessions at Kent State Stark’s studio with Ian Anderson engineering. Senpai added the lush, head-noddy “Home in Any Place” and Smokeface brought the looping, consolatory “Uvalde” to the sessions in May.
That song, a memorial to the victims of the massacre of school children in the titular Texas city, is joined in spirit by Lehman’s “Shrine,” which closes the album. “I wrote ‘Shrine’ for everyone we’ve lost during COVID.” Lehman said. “We haven’t experienced loss this this profound in our history. So I tried to try to honor the lives we’ve lost, because everybody knows a handful of people who we’ve lost from this thing.”
Lehman admits that the events of the past two years prompted a soul search, which is the title of Uplift’s longest track. “It was great in some ways, because I realized I needed to stop and just sit still and spend time with my partner and take time to reflect. But the longer that went on, the harder it was to remember who I was, and what was my purpose here on Earth.”
These days, that purpose seems clearly to make music in as many settings as humanly possible. Lehman is the main voice of the Alba Trio, a flexible and emotive jazz trio with bassist Tim Lekan and drummer Anthony Taddeo. He’s also a member of Taddeo’s brilliant Alla Boara, which combines jazz and Italian folk music. Both those bands released excellent recordings this year. He also shares the front line in Nathan-Paul Davis and the Admirables as well as fronting his own band, the Squadtet.
And Lehman is not done recording. He’s active in providing trumpet overdubs from his new home studio and will be featured on a recording that former Clevelander Eli Naragon made with Pittsburgh drum legend Roger Humphries that the bassist plans to release early next year.
So is Tommy Lehman ready to slow down? He answered the question with a question. “I’m still searching, you know?”
Tommy Lehman EP Release, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 8 p.m. at BLU Jazz+, 47 E. Market St, Akron, $20, available here.