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When saxophonists Dave Liebman and Ellery Eskelin got together to make Different But The Same (Hatology, 2003), it seemed a strange partnershipLiebman, the Jedi master of structure and changes, and Eskelin, best known for gutsy free improv. But the album title proved to have been well chosen, and the two players showed that a lot more united than divided them, acknowledging each other's core disciplines and creating something alive and beautiful in the space between them. The sparks fly again on Renewal.
The taproot of this synergy can be traced back to 1983, when Eskelin relocated from Baltimore to New York and began studying with Liebman. Liebman's study programs are legendarily challenging, demanding of their participants rigorous conceptual application and also, which is particularly relevant here, encouraging the broadest knowledge of the jazz tradition and its treasure chest of compositions. At some point, Liebman is almost certain to have told Eskelin, as he tells other students, that he had to master the conventions before he could successfully abandon them. On Forms (Hatology, 1990) and later albums, with their insightful recalibrations of standard material, Eskelin showed that he'd been listening.
Form plays as big a part in Renewal as in-the-moment intuition. Most of the tracks are around seven to ten minutes long, allowing Liebman and Eskelin time to develop their themes, counterpoints and variations as well as to improvise on them. As before, the saxophonists are in the fast company of bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jim Black. Liebman and Eskelin each contribute two pieces, Eric Dolphy's "Out There" is performed twice, there's a short group improvisation, and, for the first time, Marino and Black write one tune each.
Black's swashbuckling 7/4 driver "Cha" gets the album off to a forceful start, and is followed by Eskelin's thoughtfully composed, multi-sectioned "The Decider." The title sounds like something hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan ought to have written and the music itself has his edgy drive. It also carries echoes of Billy Strayhorn's delicious saxophone voicings in the Duke Ellington band. Marino's 10-bar blues "Palpable Clock" rings the legacy bell too, sounding like something bassist Charles Mingus might have brought to the same intense 1960 session as "Original Faubus Fables."
Other highlights include Liebman's lovely ballad "Renewal" (more shades of Strayhorn) and his newly written "Dimi And The Blue Men." Apparently inspired by a recent trip to Mauritania, "Dimi" includes a theme which has faint echoes of the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure's "desert blues," but the underlying vibe, with its spacey bells and percussion, sounds every bit as Balinese as it does sub-Saharan. In a reversal of expectations which also occurs elsewhere on the album, it is Liebman who takes the tune to its outer harmonic edges while Eskelin, acting as a concurrent reference point, stays closer to the topline.
This is music which resoundingly succeeds in achieving Liebman's mission statement of creating a disc in which straight-ahead and free jazz "intersect with immediacy and urgency." A blast from start to finish.
Track Listing: Cha; The Decider; Out There (take 2); Renewal; Palpable Clock; Dimi And The Blue Moon; IC; Free Ballad; Out There (take 1).
Personnel: Dave Liebman: tenor saxophone; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Tony Marino: double bass; Jim Black: drums and percussion.