Vic Juris: Tension and Release
AAJ: When did you first start hanging out with Liebman?
VJ: I met him in the mid-'80s. He and his wife Caris were just about to be married. I met him at a week-long educational workshop in Germany. Then I would see him once in a while and we played a few gigs together. He was starting a new band with a guitar, subsequent to his band Quest with Billy Hart, Richie Beirach, and Ron McClure. He was looking for something a little different, so he called me for that new band. It began in 1991, and I'm still with them.
AAJ: In addition to being so knowledgeable and talented, Liebman is really an inspirational guy. He seems to have a way of working with and nurturing the same group for an extended time, so it really coalesces.
VJ: The thing that's really great about Dave is that he knows what he wants to get from you. He'll get the best out of you, and he really doesn't tolerate any nonsense. I've learned more from him than anyone I've ever worked with. He's an amazing player, educator, human being. He was the best man at my wedding. We could go on about him forever. I'm so terribly grateful to Dave on many levels.
AAJ: His harmonies are so advanced and complex. How do you manage to fit in with him?
VJ: What you have to remember about Dave Liebman, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, and such is that they get up early in the morning and they work on their music all day long. I remember visiting Martino in the early morning, and he'd be in his music room sometimes until 2 a.m. the next day! His wife would slide him food underneath the door! They'd always be doing the music, and that's what made them so great. I learned the work ethic from themto really work hard. It's not all just genius.
AAJ: People say that John Coltrane practiced constantly. He would even go backstage while someone else was doing a solo and he'd practice! It was as if he couldn't stop.
VJ: The bartender at the Village Vanguard told me that Coltrane would play a set, and then he'd go backstage and practice during the whole break.
AAJ: Getting back to Liebman, some very seasoned musicians sitting in with him for the first time at a live gig, have really had a hard time following him. Liebman uses so many original lines and chord structures when he's playing that he's way ahead of most players.
VJ: He plays piano for his own purposes and he really understands harmony. He's a master. He and Richie Beirach would take chords from classical composers like Schoenberg, pick out voicings, and try to improvise over them.
AAJ: So if you're comping for him, for example, you just do your thing and he works around it, or what?
VJ: Well, each musician has his own language. You wouldn't comp for Liebman in the same way you would for Phil Woods. Liebman is more modern, while Woods or Sonny Stitt are more traditional. They're all equally great. So it's just the particular language you learn to play with Liebman or whomever you're playing with.
AAJ; Do you learn that in vivo, on the job, so to speak?
VJ: Well, in the old days if a player didn't like what you were doing, they'd just look at you and say, "Stroll!" which meant, "Don't play!" They'd just tell you to lay out. When I play with Liebman, sometimes I don't comp for a whole chorus. I use good judgmentif I don't feel that I have anything to add, I won't play for a while. If there's enough salt in the soup already, why add more?
AAJ: So there's a degree of tact involved.
VJ: Yes, of course.
Bireli Lagrene and Charlie Byrd
AAJ: An associate of yours has been guitarist Bireli Lagrene. Can you tell us something about him?
VJ: Bireli is a guitarist from France who came up as a boy wonder and was called a successor to Django Reinhardt. In the mid-'80s, we made a record together in Europe. It was a live recording where we played some of Django Reinhardt's music, as well as some original compositions of our own, kind of a post-Django recording done live. It made quite a stir in Europe. Around the same time, I did a year-and-a-half as Larry Coryell's duo partner. We did hundreds of gigs with two acoustic guitars. And I met Bireli through Larry.
I was always a fan of Django Reinhardt and knew a limited number of his compositions. So it wasn't hard for me to fall in with Bireli Lagrene. You should check him out on the internethe's a remarkable player. He has a couple of YouTube videos. I played with him when he was about 18 or 19. He's about 40-something now.
AAJ: Charlie Byrd was able to succeed so superbly on acoustic guitar. And you yourself have said that the acoustic guitar is the "real" guitar, so why is it that there are so few acoustic guitarists in jazz? In fact, nobody other than Charlie Byrd comes to mind that has done that on a consistent basis.
VJ: Well, Charlie was classically trained. So that's probably why he decided to stick with that instrument. I don't think he was trying to be unique; it was just his instrument. The problem for most of us is that an acoustic guitar doesn't have the sustained sound that an electric guitar has. And it doesn't really make sense to amplify an acoustic guitar. Teachers often want you to start out on acoustic guitar; however, because when you play electric guitar, you're not hearing the guitar, you're hearing the amplifier. So when you're developing your technique, it's always a good idea to start with acoustic guitar, so you're hearing the instrument.