The Dave Liebman Group made a stop in Philadelphia on their way home from a gig at Washington D.C.’s Blues Alley, as a quick addition to the 2000 Mellon Jazz Festival. The venue was Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, an old neighborhood jazz bar on the site of the now defunct Ortlieb’s Brewing Company, purveyors of one of the leading domestic beers of old. The quartet opened with “Pablo’s Story,” the piece that occupied most of the first side of Lookout Farm’s eponymous 1974 debut on ECM. Guitarist Vic Juris took the intro, with an extended, beautifully melodic solo on amplified acoustic, with drummer/percussionist Jamey Haddad playing expert tambourine. After Liebman’s melody statement on soprano sax, Haddad moved to the drumkit, and Juris soloed again, over the rhythm section. Liebman followed, with a smoking soprano flight that practically lifted the room. (With no use for the club’s piano, the band found the stage to be a close fit, so Lieb and Juris stood on the floor in front, haggling for space with the occasional passing waitress.) Stopping suddenly on a muted cymbal crash, they went back into the languid melody quietly, letting the dust settle in waves that were almost palpable to the audience. Next up was Juris’s “Rhumba in L,” a dark, softly swaying tune that quickly went to bassist Tony Marino’s solo. After a brief play with the melody, the tune’s muted, spacious elegance managed to survive the talking patrons seated a few feet from the stage. After a long Juris solo on electric, Liebman upped the intensity level a bit with a soprano solo that neatly showed his assimilation of Coltrane. Both Juris and Liebman (on tenor) took long, envelope-pushing solos on the next piece, a fusion-y workout that was close in flavor to the group’s 1997 New Vista disc. It was interesting to hear Liebman play tenor on the next tune, Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” as he worked late-period Coltrane ideas into a context so irrevocably defined on record, years before Trane would elaborate those ideas himself. Marino and Haddad, a superb drummer, pushed and pulled the familiar framework with supple empathy. Haddad was featured on Osi drum next, Lieb joining in on wooden flute (on which he has great chops) before Marino and Juris entered. “Chant” ended the set, Liebman again playing tenor on the lengthy tune, culminating in a ferocious tenor/drums duet before the rideout.
After years of playing together, the Liebman Group is a closely-attuned band that plays challenging, colorful music, that seems capable of drawing the most blase of audiences into its orbit. Each of the members is strong soloistically as well as ensemble-wise, and Liebman may be the most accomplished soprano saxophonist in jazz, next to Steve Lacy.