Most musicians are fortunate enough to find one musical partner where such shared simpatico exists that they can evolve in perfect tandemexploring a variety of contexts with the kind of comfort level that ensures complete trust and an unfettered imagination that makes no pursuit beyond reach. To find more than one is rare indeed. Saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach's 20-year-plus relationship, well-documented on last year's Mosaic Select 12 box of archival live recordings, saw them approach everything from the early fusion-meets-world music of Lookout Farm to the open-ended freedom of Quest and more intimate duets.
But when the two parted companies in the early '90s, it became Liebman's good fortune to cement a host of vital new partnerships, including guitarist Vic Juris, percussionist Jamey Haddad, bassist Tony Marino and pianist/keyboardist Phil Markowitz. Liebman's post-Beirach quintet became the core of projects ranging from detailed exploration of the music of John Coltraneinarguably Liebman's biggest influenceto its own diverse range of original composition.
Markowitz may have left the quintet in the late '90s, but he continues to be pianist of choice for Liebman, heard most recently on last year's Saxophone Summit featuring Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker, and now on Manhattan Dialogues, a series of duets recorded at the Manhattan School of Music, where both teach on a regular basis. With a personal and deeply-shared musical language, this set of eight originals and two radically-reharmonized standards is arguably the most vivid document of Liebman and Markowitz's remarkable chemistry to date.
For the most part pensive and darkly-hued, the common ground that Liebman and Markowitz share may be on the cerebral side, but Liebman's ever-present expressionist tendencies give even the most heady chromaticism of his own "Teacher of Our Child," "Philippe Under the Green Bridge" and "Jung" a visceral edge. And while neither Liebman's or Markowitz's material swings in any kind of traditional way, leaning more towards a kind of abstract rhythmic pulse, there is an inherently insistent groove on Markowitz's more up-tempo "Off By One" and "Sno' Peas"the latter a tune that was first recorded by Bill Evans and harmonica legend Toots Thielemans, although in a far more conventional context than this significantly outré reading.
Throughout, Liebman and Markowitz are so in each others' pockets as to consistently blur the line between form and freedom. In fact, by the time the duo reaches the standards"The Night Has 1000 Eyes" and "'Round Midnight"at the end of the program, the overall complexion has been so well-established as to largely obfuscate the more recognizable characteristics of these well-known tunes.
And yet, while many of the set's compositions are born from intellectual premises with challenging foundations, the 70-minute program remains completely compelling. More provocative than evocative, Manhattan Dialogues demonstrates the power and subtlety of improvisation in the hands of two artists who combine common musical goals with an uncommon ability to find the most directif not necessarily the easiestpaths to get to them.
Visit Dave Liebman and Phil Markowitz on the web.
Personnel: Dave Liebman: soprano and tenor saxophones; Phil Markowitz: piano.