Dave Liebman: Archives and Improvisations - The Past and the Now of a Life in Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Music is its own thing independent of the musicians, but jazz music in particular is at the same time the result of personalities relating to one another, a personal and interpersonal experience.

DL: It's very personal. Like you can distinguish between Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley from the first couple of notes. It's unbelievable how personal jazz is.

AAJ: It's paradoxical. When they play, musicians are focused primarily on the music as such, not on each other's personalities. But the community of individuals is subliminally influencing what's played.

DL: In another Richie Beirach has profoundly affected the music you make.

Bringing it All Up to Date

AAJ: Your autobiography, What It I was published in 2011. Eight years have passed since then. Yet it feels like it was written yesterday. I found your experiences with Lookout Farm and Quest among the most interesting sections. But I know that David Liebman never stands still. In the last eight years, since the book was published, you have been active. Bring us up to date on what you've been working on since the book was written.

DL: I've always believed in the power of the group. So I'm always looking for new guys to play with. My most recent group consists of guys who grew up near where I live in the Poconos. We have a community of musicians here that is incredible. And two of the guys in my group came up through the ranks here: alto saxophonist/reeds player Matt Vashlishan and pianist/keyboardist Bobby Avey were my students at one time. Now they're in their thirties, and I'm in my seventies. Bassist Tony Marino has been with me for years. And drummer Alex Ritz came highly recommended.

AAJ: And are you saying that these younger musicians are inspiring and stretching you, despite the fact that you have years of experience beyond them?

DL: Yes. That's why I call this group "Expansions." I bring to them a long history, and they bring me up to today. If you study the history of jazz, there's a case to be made that every ten years the music has really changed in a major way. From Armstrong to Parker to Miles and Coltrane to Ornette Coleman, and so on, every decade or so has brought a major change in the blues.

So when I finished the book eight years ago, I said to myself, "I don't want to miss the party! To bring myself up to date, I got with these younger guys who were into what's happening right now.

AAJ: What's different between the way they play and the way you had been playing before you encountered them?

DL: They play rhythmically very differently than in the past. They are much better at playing odd meters. And harmonically, Bobby Avey is taking over from where Richie Beirach left off. His harmony is in a chromatic vein, but he has a fresh way of putting it together that is mind-boggling to me. And drummer Alex Ritz can play anything: rock 'n roll, hand drums, Tibetan, Australian, whatever. So I'm very lucky I found these guys. We don't make a lot of money, but we play great together. We have an album, Earth Suite, that'll be coming out a year from now where I took parts of the Earth like the Mt. Everest for which I made a whole tone row composition that we played last night at at a local venue. In the past five years, this group has done some great stuff!

These guys play differently the same way the beboppers played differently from the swing music. While many of the great musicians play the same way indefinitely once they've matured their approach, I wanted to get with what's happening now. I Iove the challenge of picking up on something I haven't done before.

The Meaning of Life and Messages to Young Musicians

AAJ: Coltrane, when asked about his beliefs, said that music was his spirituality. He was on a serious spiritual quest after he hit maturity and quit using drugs. He studied eastern thought and western philosophy intensively. To use the name of one of your past groups, I intuitively feel that you've been on your own spiritual "quest" all your life. But that's just a hunch. Do you feel that you're seeking some higher ground, some spiritual awareness about the "big picture" of what life is all about?

DL: For me, it's really simple. I just don't understand why people are so cruel to other people. Why do we mistreat and hurt one another, like killing people, bigotry, war? The history of mankind is replete with violence and hate. My spirituality is about treating people well: "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself." Coltrane put his spiritual ideas right into his music: A Love Supreme, and so on. It fit with those times, the '60s, when eastern spirituality came into western consciousness. For me, I don't believe in a formal religion or spiritual practice. I think that some religious beliefs have made things worse rather than better. For me, I feel that when we're playing jazz, we're reaching for something that's out there, and we're bringing it back to the planet. That's my version of spirituality.

AAJ: The search for something mysterious.

DL: Yes, there are things you can't put your finger on, bigger than us. And music can really put us in touch with that. This is especially true of improvisation, because that intangible X-factor is not even in front of you until it's there! It's not real until you play the notes, and then it's gone!

AAJ: To finish up, what would you like to tell up-and-coming musicians about what they need to do to have a great lives and careers. And also, what do you think the whole jazz community—musicians, students, critics, business people, and so on—really need to know to make jazz bigger and better as time goes on?

DL: First of all, they need to admit that today jazz isn't for the masses. I never thought jazz is supposed to be popular. I think a lot of negativity comes from the need to be recognized, famous, rich, whatever. Schoenberg knew he was never going to be popular. He felt his music would last for a long time, but only a few would like and understand it. Once you accept that, you can strive to reach your own level. Schoenberg's music is not performed very often, but he created a musical revolution.

Second, a very mundane suggestion for students is called "double major," Of course, study music, but also take courses that will help you make a living, because this field is getting tighter and tighter. There's a lot of smoke and no fire. Nobody's paid enough. I worry about the guys who are terrific musicians and not getting jobs they deserve. It's almost impossible to make a living as a jazz musician any more. To make a living as a musician today, you have to take jobs playing what you don't necessarily like to do. So in my opinion, it's better to earn your bread some other way, and just play the music that inspires passion in you. Let's keep the idealism on the front burner.

AAJ: Perhaps you could also say something about the fact that jazz encompasses so many different genres and approaches today that it has no center. When you look at the whole picture, it almost seems to be in a state of chaos.

DL: Not sure if I would say chaos, but multi-faceted, yes sir!! There are so many things on the table today, so many choices and options. In the 1960s, jazz started to expand exponentially. In my opinion, the existence of many approaches is a healthy thing. To my mind the music has never been better. What we've got to do is to help these younger musicians figure out a way to balance the artistic part of their lives with being a good person and a model of serious work. We older musicians owe it to them, because we are their heroes and teachers and we went through the same process one way or the other.



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