Dave Liebman Group at Café Paradiso
May 20-21, 2011
When saxophonist and recent NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman brought his longstanding group to Ottawa's Café Paradiso a little over three years ago in April, 2008, it was truly one of the hottest, most memorable shows this city has seen in yearsif not ever. Now two decades old, with three of its original membersLiebman, guitar underdog Vic Juris and the equally underappreciated bassist Tony Marinostill around, and its fourth, powerhouse drummer Marko Marcinko, long beyond being the "new kid on the block," having spent ten years with the group, the continued appeal of Dave Liebman Group is, in part, undeniably about the chemistry that comes from a consistent lineup. But there are plenty of groups out there with longevity, that don't have the combination of firepower and finesse that Liebman has managed to retain with this ensemble.
In a recent All About Jazz interview, Liebman talked about how he keeps a group that only tours a few weeks a year together: "I'm very proactive as a leader, because to keep the same guyswhich, through thick and thin, I try to insist uponwe don't have a lot of work and we don't make a lot of money, so the only thing I have is that they're playing with me, and the challenge of this music. Because it's for the music. I'm not trying to make it like we're carrying a cross here, but it is for the music. My job with these three guys is to make it so that there's a challenge and a reason to come out and play with me. "
For the group's return visit to Ottawa, Paradiso's owner, Alex Demianenko went a step further, not only booking Liebman for two nights, but making it a small tour that began in Montreal, continued in Quebec City and wrapped up at his club for the final two nights. It's that kind of lateral thinking that makes it possible for a group like Liebman's to come to a club like Paradiso, which is relatively small, seating a max of about 75 people. As ever, Paradiso is a wonderful place to catch a group in an intimate setting that's rare, even for clubs; sitting less than five feet away from the bandstand it's possible to see how the group interacts on the subtlest of levels. Despite its dividing half-wall running down the center of the club, lines of sight were largely fine for most attendees, and the sound was consistently excellent throughout the roomall the more surprising, given that, while Marino and Juris were amplified, there was no PA to speak of, other than a microphone for Liebman to speak into, and use when he occasionally brought out his wood flute.
Another reason that Dave Liebman Group has been around for so long is because the music never stays in one place for long. The last time the group was in Ottawa, it was a more acoustic affairexcept, of course, for the kind of textural coloring that makes Juris an almost orchestral partnerwith Marino solely on acoustic bass. In the same AAJ interview, Liebman explained: "I have a book that's bigger than most jazz groups in the worldwe have 80-100 tunesand I recycle here and there and change things. Basically, I really always want to keep the slant different. Right now I'm already thinking about what we're gonna do two years from now. We're in a completely different direction at the momentelectric bass only, Vic is playing a lot of colors and sounds, I am playing only soprano, and we are playing freer, sonicallya more rocky kind of vibe."
Liebman's two nights at Paradiso suggested that, while the freer approach is still going on, it was already showing signs of morphing into whatever direction comes next. Marino split his time about 50/50 between electric and acoustic basses, while Liebman did the same, spending about as much time with his tenor saxophone as he did soprano. And while the group did, indeed, rock out pretty hardwith Marcinko driving the group with a combination of incendiary pulses and an unfettered expressionism that was the perfect foil for Liebman, who's long held a reputation for similar extroversionthere were plenty of calmer moments, too, in particular with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Zingaro," culled from New Vista (Arkadia, 1997), in Friday night's first set, where Juris switched to nylon-string acoustic guitar and the group delivered an early demonstration of its ability to play with both reverence and a healthy irreverence for the tradition, as Marino and Marcinko flexed liberally with the tempo. Still, as unfailingly beautiful as the tune waswith Liebman's warm soprano lyrically weaving through the changesit was Juris who delivered an early high point with a solo that, just when it seemed he'd shown everything he had, came out with even more, building to a peak, but then pulling back with such a visceral sense of tension and release that the audience's collective relief was palpable.
Juriswhose Omega is the Alpha (Steeplechase, 2010) was released late in the year, but still made it into at least one 2010 Best of Listwas a marvel throughout the two evenings, playing with the kind of effortless invention and open ears that made him an ideal accompanist, whether it was strumming fervently on his own "Folk Song," adding electronic textures to Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," from the group's award-winning Turnaround (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010), or driving a riff home on his "Romulan Ale," first heard on the Liebman Group's In a Mellow Tone (ZOHO, 2004), but revisited recently on Omega. An endlessly inventive soloist, with an effortless mastery of his instrument few can matchwhether executing mind-boggling intervallic leaps or creating cascading harmonicsJuris, like the rest of the group, truly manages to approach the material differently each and every time, something Ottawa fans who attended both evenings got to experience. While the four sets by no means repeated themselves, there was a handful of tunes Liebman called on both nights, including Juris' "Folk Song," the title track to Liebman's Dream of Nite (Verve, 2007), and the saxophonist's "Smokin' at the Café," an altered blues that was a great way to loosen the group up at the start of each night.
Liebman was, as ever, an equally endless fountain of ideas, and with all four sets running longeach clocking in around 90-minute mark (clearly this group came to play)and with only six tunes per set, there was plenty of opportunity for extended soloing, though the group always managed to avoid any semblance of excess. Instead, the interplay amongst the members was so compelling, and the fun they were having so obvious and infectious, that the sets seemed to pass by in an instant. And while Liebman was relentlessly impressive on the more energetic piecescombining remarkable tonal and textural control with the kind of ideaphoric abandon that seemed near-reckless but, as his solos developed with remarkable focus, clearly was nothe also proved himself a master of deeper lyricism on his balladic "Breath," from his duo record with Australian pianist Mike Nock, Duologue (Birdland, 2007).
Marcinko's a hard-working drummer who deserves far greater recognition. His ability to mirror Liebman or Juris rapid-fire note for rapid-fire note was matched by his locking, in-the-pocket, with Marino on tracks like the Spanish-tinged "Mesa D'espana," from Liebman's tribute to former employer, trumpeter Miles Davis, Back On the Corner (Tone Center, 2007). He soloed rarely, and while those occasions were as exciting and dynamic as would be expected, it was his ensemble work that, ultimately, was more impressive. Like the rest of his band mates, he worked from structural roadmaps, but with a free and unhindered approach that made even the most familiar material fresh, like the group's cover of Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia"reharmonized and delivered with shifting bars of ten and four. And, like the rest of his band mates, Marcinko may have turned the heat and volume up at times, but he was equally capable of turning on a dime, dynamically, and bringing the music down to a near-whisper.
The emphasis was on original musicmost from Liebman and Juris, but also including Marino's "Anthracite," referencing the coal mining of which Pennsylvanians like Marino and Marcinko were all too familiar, and which became a running joke throughout the first set on Friday ("Clean coal, clean coal," Marcinko quipped as Liebman introduced the song). But Liebman, whose introductions to the tunes provided plenty of insight, also ensured that the tradition which underscores everyone in the group was never forgotten, calling out material from Coleman, Gillespie and Jobim, albeit radically reworked.
If there was a hidden gem in the group for these two nights, however, it was Marino, a largely quiet partner whose playing across all four sets, was particularly impressive. As fine as he was last time in town, this time it seemed like he'd lept to a new level, on both instruments. Whether pushing a hard acoustic groove on the Americana-tinged "Folk Song," echoing Juris with an octave-divided electric bass on "Romulan Ale," or playing it entirely free on a track from Liebman's ElementsWater (Arkadia, 1999), he combined astute technicality with unfailing musicality.
A characteristic that, indeed, defined the entire group. There was no shortage of virtuosity on display, but equally, it was never an end, only a means, with Juris building his solos through gradual motivic development, Marcinko working compositionally, Marino accomplishing the near-impossible and making his electric bass sing, and Liebman, subtly directing the group with almost imperceptible hand signals, delivering solo after solo of fire and finesse. If playing free means to be able to do anything one wants, then all four of Liebman's sets at Café Paradisosix hours of improvisational heaven for Ottawa jazz fanswere prime examples of how four people can make spur-of-the-moment choices, individually and collectively, to create music of such passion and commitment that they once again raised the bar for live music in Canada's capital.
John R. Fowler