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David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

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When I'm really contributing, I get into a space where I'm not thinking about anything else, I may not even be conscious of what I'm doing, but I feel that I'm taking the space that a jazz musician should take. —Jim Ridl, Pianist
The idea for this interview came to me when I became aware of two aspects of jazz as a creative, artistic process. First, unlike most other art forms, jazz creativity emerges directly in performance through improvisation. Every jazz performance is unique and comes together in real time while it is being played. Each moment is an original contribution, and not merely an interpretation. Second, it is clear that some musicians push the envelope more than others. They take necessary risks to explore new territory. Sometimes, they redefine the nature of jazz itself. While they appreciate their lineage, they are not satisfied with merely pursuing what came before them. I began to wonder what such musicians themselves think of their creative process. What leads them to push the envelope and expand their repertoire and approach?

align=center>David Liebman / Jim Ridl

David Liebman and Jim Ridl



The jazz legacy, not to mention the contemporary scene, is rich with individuals and groups who are inventive, thoughtful, and innovative. There are many I could have interviewed about their creativity. Two who immediately came to my mind were saxophonist David Liebman and pianist Jim Ridl. First of all, I know their work well—my record library is packed with their recordings and I've heard them in person numerous times. Second, pushing the envelope is part and parcel of what they do. Every performance and recording covers new territory and goes beyond what they did the last time. Furthermore, Liebman and Ridl are independent practitioners, so to speak, yet from time to time they come together to work on various projects. They are good friends and colleagues. So I suggested to them a conjoint interview, and they liked the idea. We met at Liebman's home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania on a Saturday afternoon. The interview itself had all the spontaneity and color of a good jazz set.



As Ridl points out, jazz is a complex medium of expression. It calls for both musical intelligence and passion. The musician draws on multiple sources: music of all kinds, personal life experience, current events, history, and culture, and something intangible within the self, whether it be called soul, inspiration, the Muse, or the Spirit. This interview covers the gamut of what goes into making jazz at its best such a creative, inspiring, and self-generating endeavor.

Chapter Index

  1. On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope
  2. Sources of Inspiration and Ideas
  3. The Creative Process: Putting It All Together
  4. Getting to the Source
  5. On Improvisation
  6. Music on the Brain
  7. The Individual and Collective Unconscious: Freud Versus Jung
  8. Practical Matters, Goals, and Advice to Young Musicians



On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope

All About Jazz: Both of you are willing to take risks when you play. For example, I was listening recently to Ridl's Five Minutes to Madness & Joy (Synergy, 1999) and Dave's CD based on Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965), and both recordings have a sense of adventure, of pushing the envelope, as distinct from those who stay "close to the shore" and do the traditional thing. So my first question is what are some of the sources in the jazz heritage, in your groups, and in life in general from which you find yourself drawing inspiration?

Jim Ridl: For me, I'm influenced by many, many things. In terms of musical styles, it's really across the board. That's why I'm so glad I'm in this art form of jazz. It can absorb all these different things into one person, who can express in a jazz way and a creative way what they have to say, even though they're influenced by anything from Rachmaninoff to a country tune to something Brazilian. And that's just in music; the influences can include literature, the visual arts, and so on. More specifically, when I started out, I was listening to all kinds of jazz music. There's enough complexity in what people are playing, but I'm not thinking intellectually about it. I'm just taking in that it's grooving, it has a blues thing about it, it has a complexity. So let's say I'm listening to Oscar Peterson, I'm not getting a deep philosophical thing; I'm getting this groove, and the complexity of what he's playing. Whereas if I listen to Bill Evans, I start to dream a little bit more, because maybe it's a certain impressionistic sound that I can relate to some classical things.

David LiebmanDavid Liebman: You bring up a few points, Vic, for example this notion of taking a chance when you play, which is not the norm. That's something I've thought about quite a bit. But regarding inspirations, I think the whole idea of being inspired, for any artist, is really the key for longevity in this field. Because when you're young you're going to be inspired by what's around you, and of course your own work. But after twenty or thirty years, it's a real challenge to keep inspired. It's not that you've seen it all and been around, you've had your love affairs, you've seen war, and so on: the things that make you what you are, and the music. But how do you accomplish what Duke Ellington did, or Picasso? That, for me, is the real deal of ageing, which is relevant to me now because I'm in my sixties and into my fortieth year in the business.

AAJ: Do you have some suggestions for musicians in later phases of their career?

DL: Yes—accepting that "forward" is not the only way to go. "Sideways" is valid, meaning that when I was younger, everything had to be "more" to be convincing, learning a new scale, a new influence, new Indian player, new painting, new book, etc. That run is over. I see that you can go backwards, taking a new look at something you've done before. Jim walked in and I'm working on Jerome Kern. Now, Kern is standard material that we have been through—everybody plays All the Things You Are," for example [Note: Liebman and Ridl jammed on that tune after the interview. Give a listen: here] We've been through the Jerome Kern literature, because that's part of the learning, the bebop literature, so to say. But now I'm looking at it in a new way, and that's what I call sideways and backwards. Something you didn't cover you might cover again, or cover it in a different way, and it might not necessarily be 'new' in capital letters, but new for you. Once you accept it, and get good at it, then you'll probably be good until the day you die, as far as inspiration goes.

AAJ: So in a sense the creative process itself changes and evolves in the course of your career.


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