Dave Liebman: What It Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist

John Kelman By

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What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist
Dave Liebman In Conversation with Lewis Porter
386 Pages
ISBN: 978-0810882034
Scarecrow Press

In life, there's them that are aware and them's that ain't. Them's that are aware are not necessarily better than them's that ain't; but in being aware, they're able to assess their own lives in a broader context and, perhaps, as they reach the later stages of life, truly comprehend their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures, their achievements and the things that may simply be beyond their reach. An outspoken artist who, in refusing to suffer fools at all rather than just lightly, has undoubtedly made the occasional enemy along the way for telling it like it is, saxophonist Dave Liebman's accomplishments are many. The first of his generation to receive the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2011—placing him alongside others who were seminal influences and, in some cases, employers or musical collaborators, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Jack DeJohnette—Liebman has also been awarded France's Order of Arts and Letters, an honorary Doctorate of Music from the Sibelius Academy in Helskini, Finland, Grammy Award nominations and plenty of placements in year-end "best of" lists and polls, including All About Jazz for Best Live Shows 2011 and Best Releases in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Even these accolades aren't sufficient to truly build a picture of an artist whose high-energy, no-holds-barred attitude may be all-Brooklyn, but whose compassion and appreciation is clear to any who have taken the time to get to know his career through his nearly countless recordings, live performances, interviews like an in- depth 2011 All About Jazz feature, and copious writings at his own website and in books like A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody (Advance Music, 1991) and Self Portrait of a Jazz Artist (Advance Music, 1988). In a world flooded with saxophonists, it would still be a challenge to find one who has worn so many hats and adapted so successfully to as many styles. Folks would be equally hard- pressed to find one as hard-working; e-mails with Liebman almost always include the closing signature, "Lieb on the road."

Creating a full picture of who Liebman is and what he's accomplished is an ongoing and incremental process, where a great many pieces must be put together like a complex jigsaw puzzle, including keeping abreast of a travel schedule for recording, performing and education that would wither most musicians half the near-66 year-old saxophonist's age. Thankfully, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist is a long- overdue career retrospective—albeit one of an artist who is still very much a work in progress—that helps bring all these pieces, if not exactly together, than at least on the same board where it's possible to draw a number of important conclusions. Rather than told in narrative style—either biographically or autobiographicallyWhat It is is effectively a 386-page interview, conducted by Lewis Porter, whose John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 2000) is (rightfully) considered the definitive book on the saxophonist whose spirit has loomed so large over Liebman's entire career. How Coltrane became a catalyst for Liebman comes relatively early in the book, and says plenty about Liebman in the process:

I didn't know it then or for decades, that there is more than meets the eye. This is a general statement that you can say about life, but in this case specifically, music. And even more specifically, jazz. This is not just some cats up there playing while you snap your fingers, move your body, groove, and have a good time, which is what I thought it was. This is everything you ever want to know. It's all the knowledge of the cosmos, of spiritual stuff, wherever you're at with that. It's just packed with information, feeling, humanity, life/death—the deal. And if it's the deal and it's there in front of you, you can't turn away from it. You are forced to have to find out what it is about.

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