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Dave Liebman Expansions at Chris’ Jazz Café

Victor L. Schermer By

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Dave Liebman Expansions
Chris' Jazz Cafe
Philadelphia, PA
March 11, 2016

The pleasure of hearing Dave Liebman with his personally honed groups is that despite or because of personnel changes, they never stop transforming and expanding in scope and depth. In this incarnation of Liebman's now legendary groups, in addition to perennial sidekick bassist Tony Marino, his crew consists of younger musicians who are nevertheless quite capable of engaging on an equal level with Liebman, who has several decades of experience beyond them. In this show, Matt Vashlishan on clarinet and alto saxophone, Bobby Avey on piano and electric keyboard, and Alex Ritz on drums perfectly complemented Liebman's post-Coltrane, chromatically based, and impressionist sounds on soprano sax and wooden recorder, adding as well a considerable amount of energy, propulsion, and inventiveness all their own.

This group reminded me how important it is to hear the best groups live and in-person. They played five tunes from their recent album The Puzzle (Winding City Sound, 2015), and while it is an excellent album (read review), there was something intangible about this live show that couldn't be captured electronically. Listening to the album, I found myself intellectually stimulated. In person, I was captivated by the energy and emotion. The album made me mildly curious to hear more, but the live show made me want to catch them any chance I can get. The group had the controlled power of a good sportscar. That's hard to capture on a recording. A lot of that power was generated by pianist Avey and drummer Ritz.

Liebman is one of the finest post-Coltrane saxophonists, and, especially in "Good Bait," he sounded like Trane in some of his early 1960s performances, when he was pushing the envelope of long, rapid runs to their harmonic and melodic limits but before he moved towards the avant-garde. The Tadd Dameron tune proved to be a great vehicle for Liebman because, in its flirtation with bebop, it is so open to what a player can do with it. The other tunes, like "Hat Trick," "Continues to Ignore," and "Vendetta" seemed to embody psychological states of inveiglement, abandonment, and malcontent respectively. The group followed Liebman's lead in expanding on the motifs and emotions contained in the songs. Bassist Marino provided the rhythmic underpinning adhesive that kept the collective juices together. Liebman indicated that the closing song, "For Them," was a tribute to the Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter rhythm section that made history with Miles Davis for a few years. This gave the Expansion's rhythm section an opportunity to pay tribute, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

It is difficult to articulate what makes Liebman so special among all the many great musicians out there applying their trade. There's something elusive that sets him apart from all the others. Of course, his harmonic innovations and total dedication to the craft play a large role. But, in addition, he does something that is found more among the great classical composers than jazz players. He not only tells stories, as any good musician is supposed to do, he also paints pictures. Sometimes they are pictures of places, sometimes of people, and sometimes of the inner workings of the mind and soul. They are always vivid and evocative, and his painterly technique and palette are incomparable. This set, despite the distractions and noises of a nightclub, had the quality of an introspective walk through pictures at an exhibition.

Set List: Hat Trick (Vashlishan); Continues To Ignore (Avey); Good Bait (Dameron); Vendetta (Liebman); For Them (Liebman).

Personnel: Dave Liebman: leader, soprano saxophone, wooden recorder; Matt Vashlishan: clarinet, alto saxophone; Bobby Avey: acoustic piano; electric keyboard; Tony Marino: acoustic, electric bass; Alex Ritz: drums, frame drum.
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