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

John Kelman By

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Liebman also spends plenty of time talking about his tireless efforts in the realm of jazz education—in particular, the International Association for Schools of Jazz (IASJ) that he founded, and considers to be the life's work for which he'll be most remembered, more than his contributions as a performer, a composer and a bandleader. That's certainly a topic for debate, but there's little doubt that Liebman has created, with his organizational skills and seemingly unrelenting drive, a means for truly keeping jazz alive and well. Liebman doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk, ensuring that high level jazz education continues to be accessible to students around the world in a way that focuses on the students and the music, rather than the act of education itself.

As a performer, another defining aspect to Liebman is his acknowledgment and, even more so, acceptance of jazz in Europe as being a different but absolutely valid beast—something that may stem from the American tradition, but possesses its own legs and a different approach. Collaborating with everyone from from Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson and pianist Bobo Stenson to the Italian quartet of Dream of Nite (Verve, 2007), with pianist Roberto Tarenzi, bassist Paolo Benedettini and drummer Tony Arco, rather than putting up barriers, Liebman's life has clearly been about breaking them down.

With a life like Liebman's, there's no shortage of anecdotes, from some surprising (but unsurprisingly astute and revelatory) comments about his collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny on Elements: Water (Arkadia, 1999), to the challenges of being the only white player in Miles Davis' group at a time when "the colors of the Yamaha equipment on the stage were painted red, black, and green stripes, the flag of the Black Panthers." Liebman has never been shy to criticize, and has plenty to say about artists who sell out for a quick buck—while, at the same time, recognizing that were he offered a certain fee, he might do it too—but he's equally quick to turn that critical eye upon himself, in a manner that lends unequivocal credibility to everything he says. He's also quick to praise, and there's plenty of that, too, in particular about the members of his current Dave Liebman Group—guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko.

And it's praise well-deserved, though it may be a stretch to think of Liebman the way he positions himself with the group:

Tony is very quiet. Vic reacts to Marko and it's great. I'm like kind of the outsider, 'cause I'm the old man.

In truth, a Dave Liebman Group gig—like his two-night stretch at Café Paradiso in Ottawa, Canada, in 2011—sounds, with eyes closed, like a group of younger players, because Liebman refuses do anything but keep on top of where the music is going, without ever losing touch with the foundations that make it what it is:

Each generation added something and I didn't want to get behind. Not a lot of guys from my generation do it that well. It's a way of hearing, and like anything, concepts come easier when you are young, meaning learning it when you are older is a challenge. I'm not going to tell you I'm as good as Steve Coleman is at it, or as my students, but I must say that at my ripe age I can get by with this crazy shit, more or less. Do I enjoy it as much and all that? That's a different discussion, an aesthetic one. But I want to be able to get on a gig and do it, not be just like—He only plays 'All the Things You Are.' I don't want to be the old man, you know. That's an ego thing, besides musical—you don't want to be typecast.

A confluence of confidence and humility—completely aware of what he's good at and where he needs work but, with the mind of a problem solver, always seemingly capable of addressing his challenges and moving forward—Liebman may be approaching septuagenarian status, but he still has plenty of plans and the energy, drive and work ethic to make them happen. Equal parts captivating autobiography and inspirational "you can do it too" guidebook, What It Is is just that. From Dave Liebman, you'd not expect anything less.

Photo Credits

Page 2: Dave Kaufman

Page 3: John R. Fowler


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