“ 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.
AAJ: How would you contrast your work as a creative "mainstream" artist with your work playing outside music?
DL: Well, I don't look at categories like that. I like to delve in and out of a lot of things, rhythmically and harmonically. 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. I thought Coltrane was great at that. I thought Alvin Berg was great at that. I thought Ravelle was great at that, Picasso. I like art that goes between very abstract and very inside and then keeps the listener or the person who is the receiver, I think, curious. I like to see stuff that makes me think, "What are they going to do next?"
AAJ: What kinds of things do you do to stay creative?
DL: I have a glass of wine.... (Laughter) Well, to be serious, it's not easy as you get older, for a few reasons. One is life itself. Another thing is that, once you know a lot, it's hard to find holes to find more. But your job is to find holes within the microcosm. And when you live long - hopefully I will live long - you have to learn how to get a lot out of a little. When you are younger it's easier, but when you are older it's much more difficult to keep creative and keep honest and not go to what is easier and what is successful, whatever that means, for your act, you know, what people like. I know what people like about me and I can go there in a minute and I will go there, but I also have to remember that I have to go where I don't know. That's a thing you play with everyday. In your life it gets harder because life is complicated and keeping alive as an artist these days is so hard that to keep a creative outlook and not get stuck in the mundane is a challenge in itself. I'm not unusual in that we all have that problem, but to keep it going is a difficult thing. You know, I like to read with cats. When you are with people, you just hope that you get energy from people. The one good thing about being who you are is that you do meet some interesting people and they always give you something, and that's what we do.
AAJ: In Seattle we have a strong jazz community.
DL: I know that.
AAJ: But free jazz, which largely has been ignored by the press, is getting a lot more exposure now and a lot more of us are playing free jazz. Do you ever work with any of the less - to use that term again - "mainstream" creative musicians, any gigs, projects, or anything like that?
DL: I like tapping into that. But, you know, free jazz for me begins in 1964 or '65. It's not something different, it's just another way to play. It's like, I could play fusion or play a standard; it's just another aspect of playing. It's not a movement, it's not a cause. I enjoy doing that and especially, of course, in Europe there is a lot more of that, but I like also playing the blues too. I mean, it's all music. Once you are equipped musically, which takes 20 or 30 years, you get to a point where you don't see categories. You see, like, "Oh, here's this musical situation. Here's these musicians. Here is this particular setting." And you will do what you know and what you like to do. But you just shift gears because you can, musically. But that takes 20 or 30 years to become adept at switching among several different styles. In my case, because I grew up in an eclectic era, I have three or four things I like to do, and those are the things I can do. I don't do six or seven, but I do three or four and I enjoy it.
I think putting a name on it is something you do when you are younger and you need to do that to identify yourself. But, in the end, we are going to play free the way we will tonight on a G7 chord. I'll go back one story, I'll tell you. When I had this discussion with Pete La Roca, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland on 69th Street and Broadway on a summer night, and Chick and Dave were doing Circle then with Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton and Pete. It was Pete's band and this was my first experience. And they were kind of, in a friendly way, challenging him to - "Why can't we play free?" This is 1969, you understand, so "free" was new. And Pete says, "I play free in 4/4. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm always free." And in his case, it's very true (laughs). In his case, he could play free in 4/4. And I'll tell you something, I always think about that story and I think about it in a way like, that was kind of a casual answer. But you know what? He was exactly right. Because the truth is, what we're listening to right now with Larry (He is referring to Unity by Larry Young playing in the background. This album features Woody Shaw playing trumpet, Joe Henderson playing tenor saxophone, Larry Young playing organ, and Elvin Jones playing drums.), you don't get freer that the way Joe is playing on that. When was that "Unity," '68? You don't get freer than that playing the blues in 1968 with Larry and Jones. So, to me "free" means a state of mind, and I never think "free" is "free of." Free from - it's not "free" it's "free from." I don't have restrictions. I do what I have to do, or we do what we have to do. Political is one thing, musical is another.
AAJ: How do you see yourself growing musically over the next few years? Do you have any future projects in mind?
DL: Well, I would like to continue with this group as long as I can. As I said, I like the home feeling of empathy. And I don't go like that. I go, you know, it's project to project. I like to play with other musicians here and there, but the thing is you can always get better on your instrument. I wish I had the time to devote to that. You can get the soprano better, you know, I can just get things better. That's how I look at it. That is something that goes on until the day you die. You get better on your instrument. And the better you get on your instrument the more you are able to translate your feelings and the music to a higher level, but you've got to be better on your instrument to do that (laughs), and that takes time and playing which we have a limited amount of. So, in a way, if I would say the same thing I want to do, I just want to play as much as I can play. That's enough of a challenge these days that it becomes almost the thing that you have to do. How do you play as much as you have to play in this day and age when there are less opportunities to play? So that becomes almost the thing. I don't want to take it away from music but that's almost the thing, which is, I just want to be able to get that horn in my mouth as much as possible in a good situation. That's becoming enough of a challenge that it takes up most of my time.
AAJ: Do you think it is more of a challenge today than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago?
DL: It's almost beyond the ability to do it. The world has changed; things are different. It's not just us. It's pop music, it's everything. It's very, very hard to be creative. It's ridiculous. It's almost impossible. You have to be stronger than ever before. On the other hand, the young guys are more equipped today. But for guys like us, we have a little reputation and we can keep going. We always find a little pocket to play in and we'll just keep doing that until the end. But you have to keep your health most of all. You have to keep your inspiration - get up every day - and then you have to create work, situations that you can do. It's a very practical thing, in a way. Musically, I don't even think about it as much as I think about practicality. How are we going to get the gig? How long do we have to drive? What do we have to do tomorrow? Unless I don't have a stage, I don't have a problem. I don't have to think about that. You know, we are good guys, we'll get this. Things take care of themselves, you know, when we are good musicians.
Visit Dave Liebman on the web.