February 2003

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Hearing Liebman at the Gallery was an experience beyond words.
Last month I wrote about Jason Moran’s newest music, based on the rhythms of human speech. Soon after, I encountered Alex Ross, in the New Yorker, discussing Steve Reich’s speech-inspired work in “Different Trains,” “The Cave,” and, most recently, “Three Tales.” Ross also cited Janácek’s “Jenufa” and “The Cunning Little Vixen” as precedents. Certainly this doesn’t take anything away from Moran’s achievement, but it does fill out the picture.

John Benitez’s Soul Expressions is a funk-oriented group and an outlet for the leader’s lively electric bass playing; the lineup boasts drummer Steve Hass, tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and the remarkable vibraphonist Christos Rafalides (whose Manhattan Vibes CD is worth checking out). Guitarist Adam Rogers came on board for the group’s Jazz Gallery gig, the second set of which got off to a shaky but hilarious start. Less than a minute in, the melody instruments flubbed their entrance, quite noticeably. Benitez brought the tune to a peremptory halt, approached the microphone, and asked, “How’s the sound out there?” He continued, “We don’t drink or use drugs. This is a drug-free band.” It was onward and upward from there, with burning improv making up for an overall lack of planning.

The following night, Benitez returned to co-lead a quartet with the great Dave Liebman, with Phil Markowitz on piano and Adam Nussbaum on drums. This was of a different order altogether. Liebman began alone, on tenor, sketching a melody that soon emerged as “Invitation.” Benitez and Nussbaum entered ferociously and would maintain that intensity for two sets. Markowitz hushed the room with his rubato intro on Nussbaum’s ballad “For Us”; he also brought in his classic waltz “Sno’ Peas,” as well as an inventive head based on “I Love You.” Benitez’s “J Ben Jazz,” a brisk, tuneful entry from his excellent disc Descarga In New York (Khaeon), followed the darkly romantic melody and feel of Larry Willis’s “To Wisdom, The Prize,” long a part of Liebman’s repertoire. One especially tricky Benitez vehicle tripped up the band toward the end of the evening. But no matter, for Liebman’s tenor choruses on “Footprints,” the finale, were nothing short of earth-shattering — particularly the unaccompanied ones.

Liebman’s phrasing is physical; his pauses are deliberate, and at times fairly long. When he takes his breath, a quiet comes over him. He’ll look calmly off to the side, perhaps lift his arm in a semi-voluntary, affirming gesture toward bandmates. And then he’ll begin again: contorted yet graceful torrents of swinging chromaticism and multiphonic fury, all perfectly timed and purposefully, severely dissonant. Liebman’s authority has been earned over more than three decades, at times on bandstands led by Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. On the mic, the saxophonist recalled gigging with Elvin at the Vanguard and meeting a teenaged Adam Nussbaum for the first time. Viewing and hearing shared histories such as these, in the intimate setting of the Gallery, was an experience beyond words.

JoAnne Brackeen returned to the Jazz Standard in advance of her new release, Friday: Live at the Jazz Standard (Arkadia), due out in February. The album, waxed prior to the Standard’s recent renovation, finds Brackeen at the helm of a quartet featuring Ravi Coltrane, Ira Coleman, and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. This time around Ugonna Okegwo occupied the bass slot, and the band was on fire. Brackeen inked an exceedingly tricky tune named for the club itself. Other highlights included a polyrhythmic interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” a charging, boppish line called “Chatterbox,” and a blistering romp on “Countdown” (the first Coltrane tune I had ever heard Ravi play). Brackeen is phenomenal in both the playing and writing departments, and her new disc bears that out. There’s another Latin-themed record in the can as well.

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