Jeff Lederer's group performs at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on Nov. 18.

Jeff Lederer's group performs at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on Nov. 18.

Sunwatcher, saxophonist Jeff Lederer’s first recording as a bandleader, feels like a career retrospective. The spirit of Lederer’s musical hero, the late avant-garde saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler, hangs over the recording, from the expansive opening track “Albert’s Sun” to the cover image, a re-creation of a 1969 photo of Ayler in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Another composition on Sunwatcher is named for Lederer’s former math teacher, Larry Schoenberg, the son of Second Viennese School composer Arnold Schoenberg. (Yup, the piece is fairly nerdy.) There’s also some gutbucket jazz-funk on Sunwatcher, inspired in part by organ-trio gigs Lederer played in Harlem early in his musical life.

What’s surprising is that Sunwatcher is very much an “of-the-moment” recording on which most of the material was committed to tape in only one or two takes. With all the build-up to recording a debut album, the 48-year-old Lederer said from his home in Brooklyn that going with a more spontaneous approach and avoiding the urge to over-arrange and strangle the life out of each track wasn’t difficult.

“I think it’s a natural outgrowth and that it should happen that way,” Lederer said. “Sometimes you see younger bandleader coming out with a first album, and often times the music can be overly-prepared and fussy in its compositions and arrangements. I wanted my first outing to be something hopefully that reflected the maturing process, where you’re ready but not prepared.”

After playing for 30 years in a variety of settings, Lederer said that his concept going into the project was simple: to enter the studio with musicians he knew intimately — drummer Matt Wilson and pianist Jamie Saft, both longtime collaborators. The third musician, bassist Buster Williams, was someone Lederer knew through recordings. “You just know that he’s going to come into it with that huge wealth of knowledge,” Lederer said. “The amazing thing is that Buster totally exhibited the quality of being ready for anything, not just to lay down his ‘Buster Williams’ thing. Lederer also said he could feel each musician’s history in the room as the group played.

The music on Sunwatcher marries rootsy soul to elements of free jazz, and that’s what the journeyman player wanted to say about himself, even if it stood in contrast with what many younger musicians are doing right now, with intellectually complicated patterns, harmonies and formal structures. An over-the-top love of sound takes precedence over heady compositional constructs. And unlike a lot of contemporary players, Lederer isn’t averse to using “swing” as a rhythmic mode.

“I think that there’s a million different ways to swing,” Lederer said. “Younger players are swinging in a different way: odd meters and so on. For me, my education in jazz took place on the bandstand in places where swing was valued. I spent a lot of time playing uptown in Harlem. That value is pretty deeply ingrained in me. Some cats have no need to feel that, but for me it feels great. The organ gigs I played in Harlem were for older an generation who were really into that, and I gotta say, I love playing and having an octogenarian love what I’m playing.”

Sunwatcher was released in June, and Lederer’s been touring with the music ever since. If some of the repertoire on the bandstand has changed, the overall approach stays true to its roots.

“We try to be fresh with it each time,” Lederer said. “We got that on the record. The repertoire has grown and I’ve added some more compositions by Albert Ayler and some more hymn tunes. But the band had an identity from the moment we hit and it’s maintained that.”

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