“ I like the line between the in and the out and the up and the down. I just like yin and yang stuff, you know, floating between the two. ”
All About Jazz: How did you get your start as a musician?
Dave Liebman: I began playing classical piano at the direction of my parents before I could choose my instrument of my choice which was then tenor saxophone. When I was about 13 years-old I began saxophone, clarinet, and flute. My basic awakening was seeing Coltrane live in New York the first time when I was 15 years-old and just going to see the clubs and everything, you know, just seeing what jazz was live. And that made me think that there was something to be interested in here.
AAJ: Who would you say were your earliest influences?
DL: Well, Coltrane, of course, was the pivotal influence, but also Miles, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Herbie, everybody in the sixties. And also other musics, you know, James Brown, Ravi Shankar, Bartok. In the sixties you were easily exposed to a lot of kinds of music which formed a kind of eclectic vision. I am just interested in a lot of ways of playing, different kinds of styles and stuff.
AAJ: Did you study music in school?
DL: Not formally, no. No, I have a degree in American history, actually. But I took lessons from a wonderful saxophone teacher who was a classical teacher, and some jazz lessons but never formally. You know, it's like, you learn through your friends, especially piano players (laughs).
AAJ: How did you get you first break?
DL: Well, my biggest break in the public eye is, of course, with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, but the first experience I really had was with a drummer named Pete La Roca and Chick Corea and Steve Swallow. That was the band, sometimes with Dave Holland. And that was my first experience with a really, you know, with world class musicians. But from the career standpoint, I mean, being able to be with Elvin for a couple of years and then with Miles was, of course, a break. It lunges you because after Miles you have no choice, you have to go on your own.
AAJ: When would you say that was?
DL: '73 or '74. You know, '70 to '74. A four year period.
AAJ: How did that transition into working with Miles in the early '70s?
DL: Well, Miles was a very complex personality but he was a very direct person and if you were ready to learn something, you could. And you just had to observe, you know, if you cared. I definitely cared. With him I watched, really, how he played and how he conducted the music. The music wasn't that great, but the way he did things was very interesting. He knew how to control the situation.
AAJ: So you worked with Elvin...?
DL: Elvin was first for two and a half years and then Miles for a year and a half. So it was like a full year of graduate, post graduate course of study.
AAJ: How did you come into working with Elvin?
DL: Well, Elvin knew me from in those days, in New York, the scene was quite small. People knew each other from just hanging out. My chance came because Gene Perla was the bassist with Elvin at that time; he took Wilbur Little's place. At one point, Joe Farrell was about to be done, so I became the next guy. I had an audition, sort of, but I was in the line. In those days, you waited in line and your time came.
AAJ: Can you talk about your work as a leader?
DL: As I said, after Miles you were expected to go on your own, and I had an opportunity with Richie Beirach, particularly with him and a group I had, First Lookout Farm. I had guys who were willing, ready, and able and into the spirit of things so I felt that I had the right people at that time. I also had an opportunity with ECM at that time, ECM Records. So things kind of converge to make your first identity as a leader. After that it gets a little harder but you continue on. In my case, I just feel it's very important to keep a band together no matter what, even if it is a few times a year or a few times a semester or whatever, however you look at it. But the thing is, to have empathy with other musicians takes years. Unspoken things that only can take place after years, that is something I have always valued very much. So, I guess in these thirty years I have had about four bands maybe, or five. I don't know, I haven't counted but they have all been together for years at a time because I try to keep it together. It's a lot of work to do but musically it's rewarding because you have, I think, a higher level of communication. I mean, it's always great to play with new musicians. I go to Europe a lot, I play with different people and it's great but there is nothing like knowing what somebody does and addressing yourself to their capabilities. That's what Miles really taught me. Now, you go through the strengths of the musicians, you find out what they are, and then play to that.