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Book Review

Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach: Ruminations and Reflections

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Ruminations and Reflections
Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach
305 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1 955604 10-9
Cymbal Press
2022

Saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach have worked together since the early 1970s when they got together in Liebman's loft in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan to improvise free jazz for hours on end. At the time, Liebman was a John Coltrane enthusiast who learned jazz mostly by listening and playing. Beirach had serious classical training, including contemporary composers, and learned a lot through opportunities to gig with masters like Stan Getz and Chet Baker. Despite their differences, they have worked together in the decades since then, beginning with First Visit (Philip, 1973) up to and including their duo recording Empathy (Jazzline, 2021). In the latter, one can hear how different are their sources and styles, yet how well they integrate their playing. Over many years they became close friends and spent long hours together swapping ideas, traveling, and spending time before and after gigs. They are as close as two bros can be, and that is the basis of this new and intriguing book.

Ruminations and Reflections consists first of conversations between Liebman and Beirach that were recorded and transcribed with the help of Kurt Renker, founder and producer of CMP records, who made it all come together into a book that flows and maintains interest throughout. The second part of the book consists of commentaries and reviews that the pair wrote independently. The latter all speak for themselves, and will be touched upon later. Firstly, there are the fascinating conversations, filled with historical details and personal reflections on the music, and comments that are utterly sincere, both about themselves and about the many musicians, friends, and audiences who have accompanied them on their journey. Liebman and Beirach are great conversationalists, creating a sense of excitement and sometimes nostalgia. They also share a sense of humor and irony, which makes for great reading pleasure. And there are numerous photographs that provide a feeling of personal presence.

Their conversations are divided into several sections about themselves, the music, their personal lives, and their takes on iconic musicians. They are as follows:

Musical Lives

Here. Liebman and Beirach ruminate and reflect on their early work together from the time of the jam sessions in the loft through the end of the 1970s, when their careers were firmly established. The sense of adventure is palpably felt as they are surrounded in Liebman's loft by top musicians like Bob Moses, Dave Holland, Leroy Jenkins, Chick Corea and many others. (Liebman's loft was in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan across the street from the famous "Jazz Loft," the living space of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, where legions of jazz musicians came to jam and hang out.) Fans of the Lookout Farm (ECM, 1974) and Quest (Palo Alto, 1981) albums and groups will love the intimate depictions of their recording sessions and gigs. They also reminisce about a memorable trip to India which ended up with an invitation to do a personal concert for a Hindu potentate. Then, too, they reflect on the recording of the album Pendulum (Artists House, 1979) at the Village Vanguard.

There are recollections of the ups and downs of the jazz scene at the time, including brief recollections about Liebman's tour with Miles Davis and Beirach as a sideman with Chet Baker and Stan Getz, experiences which were formative for them. They talk about the extensive use of drugs at the time, which Beirach feels was a dead end, but Liebman, who experimented quite a bit with substances, including LSD, offers a surprisingly liberal view that drug use fostered creativity and opened up possibilities for the music, with which many rock musicians would certainly agree. No mention is made, however, of the shipwrecked lives and the early demise of so many musicians addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Our Views On

This series of conversations consists of interesting takes on classical and jazz history, playing free (free of tunes and some structures, not Ornette Coleman's "harmolodics"), jazz education (mostly the standard views about playing and mentoring with the masters versus jazz conservatory), and a series of astute observations about the great ones of their time, including Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, Wynton Marsalis, and others. Beirach loves Bill Evans (he knew him personally and dedicated a recording to him), but considers Tyner to be the true master of modern jazz piano and explains his position in depth and detail.

They both agree that Marsalis is a great modern trumpeter, but Liebman questions his decision to virtually abandon jazz music beyond Duke Ellington when he became director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Liebman takes a dismal view of Marsalis's sellout (which Marsalis himself has tried to remedy), while Beirach has a friendlier position, admiring Marsalis's trumpet playing and artistry in both jazz and classical playing and recording.

Of great interest in this section is Beirach's memory of drummer Jack DeJohnette when they played briefly in a trio with bassist Dave Holland. DeJohnette masterfully kept to the beat while playing freely with the tempo between the beats. Beirach had trouble following him and felt devastated, thinking he had ruined the rhythm. He sulked back to his hotel room in a state of misery. But DeJohnette and Holland sensed his dismay, knocked on his door, sat down with him, and told him he played very well and that it was unimportant to follow the drummer! The men deserve kudos for supporting a relative newcomer that way. It will also be news to some that the rhythm section does not have to be strictly coordinated. Beirach here captured a very important moment of his life experience. It contains a message for all of us that we can go our own way and still be a valuable part of the group. The whole human race has a lot to learn in this respect. Jazz can teach us a lot about how diversity, individuality, and cooperation go hand in hand.

Personal Perspectives

This shorter section is full of clichés. They basically agree on how hard the music business can be and how the musicians have to stay on top of it to survive (no kidding!). They feel that their legacy is going to be carried on by their students (who knew?) Both of them delcare their mutual appreciation for pianist Paul Bley, who deserves much wider recognition as a true master and pioneer. And they differ with the critics who felt that John Coltrane expressed anger in his playing. Beirach and Liebman opine that Trane's intensity was energetic, not aggressive. Trane's rendition of "Alabama" expressed mourning more than anger for lives lost in the Civil Rights movement. The so-called "anger" in his later playing was Trane relentlessly reaching for higher levels of musical expression and spirituality. Anyone who listens to African American gospel music would sense this immediately.

Road Trip Through Our Past

In a rip-roaring car trip, Beirach and Liebman visit the neighborhoods of their childhood and adolescence in Brooklyn, ending up in Greenwich Village and the clubs that stimulated their passion for jazz. Whether they were actually in a car with the recorder on or role-played it in retrospect, the excitement of seeing one place after another outside a car window and the memories they evoke is contagious. Personally, I grew up in the Brighton Beach neighborhood where they visited, and Greenwich Village and its jazz clubs have always been frequent haunts of mine. Everything was familiar to me from my past. Woody Allen grew up near us, and their mentions of him bely the images they present of themselves as perennial adolescents. Such experiences are universal, as Allen's success as a comedian and filmmaker attests. So even if you are not familiar with these places, you will enjoy the ride too.

They drive by their childhood homes, public schools, stores, restaurants, and Greenwich Village nightclubs, all the while remembering life events that took place there. What's important is that Liebman's and Beirach's sense of adventure as kids contributed to the innovation and spontaneity with which they later approached their instruments and the music. For them, jazz became a lifetime adventure of exploring emergent possibilities. Neither has ever rested on his laurels and maintained a single way of playing. They participated actively in the hard bop and fusion movements and beyond. Liebman has formed new groups with fresh personnel and ideas every few years. Beirach has drawn from many sources and worked with varied personnel, going where his instincts and knowledge take him. Discussions of their many different musical experiences pervade the book.

The second half of the volume consists of commentaries written by Liebman and Beirach, some of which have been previously published online or in print. In the section of "Letters to Our Masters," they express their gratitude to musicians who had a great influence on them. In "Preparation and Performance," they offer an intimate depiction of how they go about preparing for concerts and recordings. Musicians will know the routine like the back of their hands. Listeners will be interested in the essentials of jazz education and in the many things that have to be taken into account in preparing for a gig, Then, there is "A Listener's Guide" which is basically a rundown on their recordings from 1970 through 2021. Liebman and Beirach are both master teachers, and Liebman has changed the face of jazz education for the better with his extensive writings, master classes, and founding, leading, and providing classes for the International Association of Schools of Jazz.

All in all, Ruminations and Reflections is a wonderful, lively expression of Liebman's and Beirach's devotion to jazz and to living a life of commitment to ethics, the joy of living, and service to the jazz community. Scholars may question some of their overgeneralizations and opinions masquerading as facts, but by and large, there is a deeper truth in what they say that comes from decades of immersion in jazz and the tenor of the times in which they have lived. And readers will delight in the "lightness of being" which makes for enjoyable reading and has lessons for all of us about living life to the fullest, spontaneously, and in the moment.

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