Dave Liebman: Live / As Always and Quest for Freedom

John Kelman By

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Quite possibly the hardest-working saxophonist—if not the hardest working musician, period—these days, not a month goes by when there doesn't seem to be a new release from veteran jazzer Dave Liebman.

In the twelve months since autumn 2009 alone, Liebman has been spotted in freer terrain, collaborating with another active saxophonist, Evan Parker, on Relevance (Red Toucan, 2010), and drummer Michael Stephans on Nomads (ITMP, 2009), while mining the modern mainstream with the collective super group Contact on Five on One (Pirouet, 2010), also featuring pianist Marc Copland, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart.

Two albums featuring his longstanding Dave Liebman Group cover a 15-year period, from the unearthed 1995 performance, Live at MCG (MCG Jazz, 2009), to his more recent and distinctly personal tribute, Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Jazzwerkstatt—Germany, 2010). And, in an unassuming fashion, he got together one afternoon with old friends Abercrombie, Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum for a relaxed set of standards, in honor of Nussbaum's recently departed mother, on Something Sentimental (Kind of Blue, 2009). With a single disc reissue of his 2002 double-disc duo set with Copland (HATology's Bookends) in the works, he's already clocked up more records in less than a year than most artists release in a decade...and that's not all of them.

There are further reissues in the works, most notably with his late 1980s/1990s group Quest, also featuring another old friend, pianist Richie Beirach, a welcome event for fans of what is, perhaps, the saxophonist's longest-standing musical partnership. Beirach and Liebman go all the way back to the early 1970s with Lookout Farm (whose 1974 ECM debut remains woefully in need of CD issue, though a 2004 Mosaic Select 12 box set does have one stellar live performance from that group), also recording a number of equally outstanding duet discs, including another in-need-of-reissue date from the 1970s, Forgotten Fantasies (A&M, 1977). The pianist and saxophonist have, after a few years hiatus, renewed their relationship in recent years with both regroupings of Lookout Farm (yet to be recorded and/or released) and Quest, the latter beautifully represented on Redemption—Quest Live in Europe (HATology, 2007).

And so, with Liebman's count for the 2009/2010 year already approaching ten, the release of two more albums, nearly back-to-back, are all the more remarkable for their continued demonstration of the breadth and depth of Liebman's skills as a writer, and as a saxophonist who has, in a reverse twist to most, made the soprano his main axe and the tenor a somewhat secondary one, though he's no less capable on the bigger horn. Perhaps the most distinctive soprano voice of his generation, coming from the post-Joe Coltrane world, but with a warmer and less nasally tone, Liebman's expressionistic temperament is put to the test on not one, but two big band recordings: one, featuring his own New York-based big band, under the direction of Gunnar Mossblad and featuring members of his smaller Dave Liebman Group; the other, a collaboration with Beirach and Germany's HR Big Band. Hearing the two discs side-by-side demonstrates how music from, for the most part, one pen can be interpreted in so many different ways, and how aesthetic differences can turn two albums that, by all rights, ought to sound somewhat similar, into two very different experiences.

The Dave Liebman Big Band

Live / As Always

MAMA Records


There's a comfortable chemistry with Liebman's big band that also provides a consistent voice on this set of six Liebman originals that date as far back as one of his first compositions, the more centrist, fourths-based "A Bright Piece," and move forward to the more contemporary "Anubis," which often makes its way into Dave Liebman Group set lists, including its stunning, balls-to-the-wall set in Ottawa back in 2008.

First recorded on one of the group's best studio dates, Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003), "Anubis" rarely isn't a tour de force, but here, expanded by trumpeter Scott Reeves' astute arrangement for big band, it gives new meaning to that often overused and abused phrase, beginning with Liebman's wooden flute, layered over a pad of shifting brass colors that move so effortlessly throughout its fourteen minutes that it's only when they gradually resurface that it becomes apparent how passages that feel spontaneous are, in fact, preconceived.

The definitive, mid-eastern 5/4 riff that so defines the essence of "Anubis" builds gradually, with Charles Pillow's oboe solo positioned in a curiously distant place in the mix, yet still a powerful early feature that leads to a surprising (in this context) synth solo from big band keyboardist Jim Ridl, a longtime fixture on the Philadelphia scene and an equally longstanding collaborator with guitar icon Pat Martino. Here, however, his guitars partner is Dave Liebman Group's Vic Juris, a perennially underrated guitarist who may not possess Martino's cachet, but who is, in fact, a far more versatile player, with a broader command of tone, technology and style that's rarely matched, and even more rarely surpassed. His solo here may be brief, but it's as perfect as ever, with microtonal hints perfectly supporting the Arabian flavor of a tune named after an Egyptian deity.

Elsewhere, Mossblad's arrangement of "Philippe Under the Green Bridge"—first heard on Liebman's understated duo record with ex-Liebman Group keyboardist Phil Markowitz, Manhattan Dialogues (ZOHO, 2005)—is a more impressionistic piece, once again a feature for Pillow on oboe, but this time engaging in a lengthy in tandem and unsupported duo with Liebman, whose soprano is perfectly matched here as the two empathically orbit, disperse and coalesce on a dark tone poem that gradually builds in texture and dynamic, ebbing and flowing beneath Liebman's combination of lithe catharsis and subtile interactions with both the brighter horns and his gentle rhythm section.

Much as Dave Holland's large ensemble uses, as its core, his own quintet, Liebman makes his group—with Juris, the ever-pliant bassist Tony Marino, and powerhouse drummer Marko Marcinko—the center of the saxophonist's larger, 20-piece ensemble. There's value in the decision to operate a big band that, unlike Holland's, isn't meant to be a perennial road warrior, though Live / As Always is, of course, a live recording, culled from a 2005 performance in Denver, Colorado, and a 2007 show in Toledo, Ohio. What's, perhaps, somewhat surprising is that, despite a two-year gap between these shows, Liebman's big band has remained constant, a challenge in a time where it's hard enough to schedule dates with a quintet, let alone a group this size.

As much as the large ensemble's chemistry is predicated on the consistency of Liebman's smaller Dave Liebman Group, so, too, does maintaining a regular line-up for this larger group work to its advantage, as it winds its way through knotty arrangements like Guri Agnon's expansion of "Turn It Around," a Liebman piece from the early 1990s that, inspired by the saxophonist's work with drum icon Jack DeJohnette, shifts meter and tempo in ways that, in lesser hands, would sound stiff and forced, but here feel natural and completely organic, driven by Juris' strangely bluesy ethereality and Marcinko's effervescent kit work. It's a powerhouse closer that, as with the rest of Live / As Always, may feature many of the big band's members but is ultimately focused on Liebman, who manages to be assertive in stance and visceral in his drive to the stratosphere, while always remaining somehow melodically grounded, delivering solo after solo of pure invention and inimitable focus.

Richie Beirach & Dave Liebman

Quest for Freedom

Sunnyside Records


From the opening of pianist Richie Beirach's"Pendulum"—the title track to the 1978 Artists House album of the same name, more recently collected into a staggering three-disc box set that expands on the original album's four tracks by including the entire set of recordings made at New York's legendary Village Vanguard on Mosaic Select 32: Pendulum Live at the Village Vanguard (Mosaic, 2008)—it's clear that Quest for Freedom may be also be a big band album, but that definition is just about all it shares with Live / As Always. It's not just that it's a different big band either. Instead, it's the immediacy of Beirach's intro, building from a trade-off between upper and lower registers to a more compact set of voicings that set the tone for an album that, when it swings, swings much harder and, with the incredible telepathy shared by the pianist and Liebman, is driven to greater heights of power and exhilarating electricity.

In the hands of arranger Jim McNeely, the HR Big Band is hardly your grandfather's big band. Instead, McNeely takes maximum advantage of the ensemble's sonic potential, turning Liebman's solo on "Pendulum" into a visceral trade-off with what seems to be the entire brass section, swooping and swirling in response to his similarly expansive, post-bop lines. A sudden stop, and a duo with Beirach—rather than taking things down—actually succeeds in turning the heat up further, leading, with a seemingly relentless series of descending chords, back into a full-band section, with McNeely cuing the horn section so intuitively as to make this an early album climax that might seem hard to match...but is, time and again.

It's no surprise, then, that "Pendulum" comes from a live recording in Frankfurt, from which the set closer, the equally incendiary "The Sky is the Limit," is also culled. What's surprising, however, is that this is not a tune from either the Liebman or Beirach songbook. Instead, this comes from McNeely's pen—along with "Pendulum" the only other non-Liebman track—and, proves just how in tune the arranger is with the combination of Liebman's inherent, post-bop expressionism and Beirach's distinctive blend of jazz harmonies with the classical language of more outward-thinking composers who spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, an approach that's resulted in the pianist's nickname, "The Code." Where "The Sky is the Limit" differs, however, is its greater compositional complexity, "Pendulum," at its core, a relative sketch of a piece that McNeely astutely expands for this large ensemble. Instead, "The Sky" covers a wide swatch of tempos and grooves, with the horns moving from vivid counterpoint to rich harmonies in support of an early solo from Liebman that's not surprising in its depth of invention, but is in its ability to feel like far more than the more common cathartic outpouring of players who lack the Liebman's ability to think long-form, and structure his solos so that they combine powerful emotion with a remarkable narrative sense.

Beirach, too, possesses this rare ability to think in grander terms without losing the focus required to make a solo breathe—feeling like spontaneous composition rather than a series of random ideas loosely drawn together—with his solo on the balladic "Port Ligal" an example of more subdued invention. He's also a brilliant context-setter, with his opening to Liebman's equally subdued "Vendetta" a dark portent of his duo with the saxophonist, where their shared instincts allow them to be pliant with time, before a reduced version of the big band enters for a largely through-composed piece that only features a brief soprano solo at its end.

The two powerhouse live tracks contrast sharply with the five arrangements of Liebman tunes—recorded in a Frankfurt studio—that bookend the disc. Largely darker, more softly colored and understated in tone, these tunes wrap equally around the album's centerpiece, Liebman's haunting "WTC" (three on either side), giving the album its very specific and unique arc. The only track not arranged by McNeely (instead, by Heiner Schmidt), "WTC" is an imaginative expansion of what originated as a duo piece for piano and saxophone on Liebman's 2002 collaboration with Marc Copland, Bookends (HATology, 2002). Here, however, Copland's softer impressionism is replaced by Beirach's greater immediacy...and intrinsic energy. Beginning with Liebman's wooden flute before moving to soprano, it's a stunning and disturbing evocation of the events of September 11, 2001, made all the more vivid with HR's broader palette. It's no coincidence that it forms the album's centerpiece, as the mood of the album gradually reflects its title and finds its way to the greater optimism of Liebman's "En Fin" and, finally, McNeely's buoyant but still knotty and, at times, oblique "The Sky is the Limit."

Two big band albums featuring the same soloist and material largely from the same composer, yet two very different recordings that, rather than emphasizing their shared commonality, celebrate the remarkable breadth of an artist who, in 2010 approaching 65, is busier than he's ever been, with both new projects and the renewal of old friendships on reunion projects like Quest and Lookout Farm. Increasingly difficult as it is to keep up with his recorded output and touring schedule, it's harder still to imagine how Liebman maintains the energy required to be seemingly relentless in his time spent on the road and in the studio, and both Live / As Always and Quest for Freedom find the veteran saxophonist—along with, on Quest, old friend Beirach—at the very top of his game.

Tracks and Personnel

Live / As Always

Tracks: A Bright Piece; As Always; Anubis; New Breed; Philippe Under the Green Bridge; Turn It Around.

Personnel: Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone, wooden flute; Gunnar Mossblad: director, alto and soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet; Charles Pillow: alto saxophone, oboe, flute; Dave Riekenberg: tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; David Lown: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jay Brandford: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet (1, 2, 4, 6); Chris Karlic: baritone saxophone, clarinet (3, 5); Danny Cahn: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bob Millikan: trumpet, flugelhorn; DaveBallou: trumpet, flugelhorn; Patrick Dorian: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tim Sessions: trombone; Scott Reeves: trombone, alto flugelhorn; Sam Burtis: trombone; Jeff Nelson: bass trombone; Jim Ridl: piano, synthesizer; Vic Juris: guitar; Tony Marino: bass; Marko Marcinko: drums.

Quest for Freedom

Tracks: Pendulum; Jung; Vendetta; WTC; Port Ligat; Enfin; The Sky is the Limit.

Personnel: Richie Beirach: piano; Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone, wooden flute; Jim McNeely: conductor, arranger (1-3, 5-7); Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn: alto saxophone; Oliver Leicht: alto saxophone; Tony Lakatos: tenor saxophone; Julian Arguelles: tenor saxophone; Rainer Heute: baritone saxophone; Buon Watson: trumpet; Thomas Vogel: trumpet; Martin Auer: trumpet; Axel Schlosser: trumpet; Günter Bollmann: trombone; Peter Feil: trombone; Christian Jaksjö: trombone; Mnafred Honetschläger: bass trombone; Peter Reiter: piano; Martin Scales: guitar; Thomas Heidepriem: bass; Paul Höchstadter: drums; Heiner Schmitz: arranger (4).

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