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

John Kelman By

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It could have been a painting for somebody else. It could have been seeing an Ingmar Bergman movie. You get that hook, and that hook says to you, there's more. First, you think it's fun and all that. You move your fingers fast, and all that stuff I said about jazz in the beginning—Oh, it's so interesting, the guys, their eyes are closed, they don't talk to each other—how cool, how hip. But no, it's more, and this guy made me see there's more. I don't think without Trane that I would have gotten it. I mean, this is a big statement, but would I have gotten it through Miles Davis? Or Bill Evans? Or, you can name anybody, and I'm not sure because still today I haven't gotten it from anybody else. Trane covers that place for me. But would I have gotten it another way? I'm not sure. And if I wouldn't have gotten it, we wouldn't be sitting here. It's the truth. I would not have gone on with this music. I would have loved it, enjoyed it, but I would have done something else in life. I believe that. And I really put it to the beginning at that night in Birdland, New York City. That was the seed that turned into a tree.

Liebman gives plenty of space to his upbringing, including the polio that would, in many ways, define a personality driven by the resolve to surmount any and all obstacles. His matter-of-fact, conversational tone makes for a compelling read, because the entire book—beyond being filled with so many tremendous experiences and insider anecdotes—never feels dry or over-considered. Porter's injections, like those of the best interviewer, are there to help direct the conversation and, while his own accomplishments are many and admirable (something Liebman points out, more than once), it remains always about Liebman: his life, his experiences, his dreams, his accomplishments.

Throughout the book, Liebman generously ascribes so much of what has happened in his life to the actions of others—from his parents and early teachers to fellow musicians including, those seminal opportunities to work with drummer Elvin Jones and an album, Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1972), that has become a bona fide classic. His time with Miles Davis also gets plenty of footage—coming, as it did, during what was perhaps the densest and most unapproachable electric period of the trumpeter's career, on recordings like On the Corner (Columbia, 1972), which have only come to full appreciation decades later. It's not false humility, either; Liebman is quick to point out his own strengths, amongst them strong organizational skills and a work ethic that came, no doubt, from being an early baby boomer, born in post-WWII America and the first generation to actually have choices when it came to what they wanted to do with their lives. But Liebman's self-awareness is equally clear:

I was attracted to the notion of being an artist. It seemed so hip and different from what I knew—the mystery and voodoo of it. But I didn't know what that meant, though obviously it was different from what I had been brought up to believe. I was a what you see is what you get kind of person, quite meat and potatoes, though educated and highly curious. This art stuff was way beyond my purview.

Never denying the creative aspects of being an artist, what What It Is conveys most, perhaps, is the value of hard work. Liebman and Porter spend plenty of time talking about the loft scene of New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s and the Free Life Communication; playing with Jones and Davis; and, most importantly, the distinctive harmonic language that the saxophonist developed with Richie Beirach, one of a handful of pianists with whom Liebman has worked with again and again over the years, also including Marc Copland and Phil Markowitz.

His relationship with Beirach goes back the furthest, however; and if Liebman appreciates the significance and influence of the vernacular they have built together, beginning with Lookout Farm in the 1970s, through to Quest in the 1980s and 1990s, he's equally cognizant of the challenges endemic to any long-term relationship and how, as he approached 40—meeting his wife Caris and settling down to a more "normal" life with a house, a car, a child—some of those problems ultimately led to the dissolution of Quest, Liebman's drive to formalize and that language and, finally, a renewed relationship with Beirach in the last seven years with the reformation of Quest for occasional tours that have been documented on Redemption: Quest Live in Europe (HATology, 2007) and Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (OutNote, 2010).


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