You have to admire saxophonist Dave Liebman. With over fifty albums as a leader, he has built an impressive and varied body of work that has touched upon a wealth of styles. This year alone he's released an album with pianist Phil Markowitz, straddling the line between complex composition and more liberated free play (Manhattan Dialogues); a twin tenor encounter with Ellery Eskelin, where the two find surprising common ground (Different But the Same); and a recording that posits Alec Wilder as worthy alternative to more well-known contributors to the Great American Songbook (Lieb Plays Wilder).
So it should come as no surprise that Liebman has yet another release this year, and this one as unusual as the rest. While most wouldn't normally associate Liebman with fusion, the fact is that, in addition to his work with Miles Davis in the '70s, he also skirted the edges of the genre on some of his own albums during that decade. But Flashpoint, an electro-acoustic hybrid that finds him teamed with Vital Information founder/drummer Steve Smith, electric bassist Anthony Jackson, and Turkish keyboardist Aydin Esen, represents a significant departure from his more acoustic work of the past 25 years.
Aside from one composition by Phil Markowitz, the writing is split evenly between Liebman and Esen ("Kandam West/Edge of Tomorrow" is a collaboration between Esen and Smith). Liebman's material ranges from the pedal-to-the-floor kinetic energy of the title track to "Like John" which, despite the alternating bars of 5/4 and 4/4, has harmonic precedence in Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." "The Gentle Warrior" is a dark-hued ballad paying tribute to the late Bob Berg's lyrical side, contrasting the more outgoing nature for which he's most often remembered.
There's plenty of high energy playing throughout the disc, but nothing feels superfluous or excessivepitfalls that so often scuttle lesser fusion projects. Liebman has always been a direct and immediate player regardless of the context, but equally he's been consistent in shaping his overall direction to each project's specific aesthetic, keeping his own musical personality in clear sight at the same time.
With Smith and Jackson as vital and flexible as expected, Esen is the unknown quantity. His small body of work is surprisingly diverse, from the post bop of Eddie Gomez's Trio to appropriately-titled Sergio Brandao release, Brazilian Landscapes. On Flashpoint he focuses on acoustic piano, but his synth tones mesh organically and his writing, like Liebman's, is harmonically deepcomplex and challenging, but never purely for the sake of it, and always retaining a firm sense of groove.
The other thing that stands out about Flashpoint is how timeless it feels. The rhythmic twists and turns of Esen's "Fabric of Reality" hearken back to fusion's glory days in the early to mid-'70s, yet it feels wholly contemporary at the same timea characteristic that makes Flashpoint far more than just another retro drop in the fusion bucket.
Visit Steve Smith, Dave Liebman, and Aydin Esen on the web.
Personnel: Dave Liebman: soprano and tenor saxophones, bamboo Indian flute; Steve Smith: drums,
ghatam, udu; Aydin Esen: keyboards; Anthony Jackson: bass guitar.