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Dave Liebman & Richie Beirach: Empathy


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In a fifty-year, on-off musical relationship that began with a jam session in 1967 and that deepened in New York's loft scene of the early '70s, Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach have made some remarkable music together.

Their first recorded collaboration was on Liebman's First Visit (Philips, 1973). Liebman returned the compliment on Beirach's Forgotten Fantasies (Horizon, 1976)—the first of half a dozen duo albums the pair would make in the following four decades. Intermittently since 1981, Quest, a quartet comprising Liebman, Beirach, Ron McClure and Billy Hart, has revelled in post-Coltrane modern jazz of broad scope.

Whilst both musicians have also played as sidemen with some of jazz's biggest names—Liebman with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, Beirach with John Abercrombie, Stan Getz and Chet Baker—it is through their impressive discographies as leaders that they have really forged their reputations as singular talents. This five-CD box set, recorded between 2016 and 2020, captures Liebman and Beirach in solo, duo, trio and quartet settings. What all five discs have in common is that the music is improvised.

The first CD, the aptly titled Empathy, is a duo recording from 2018. Seven pieces range in length from five to eleven minutes, with Liebman switching between soprano and tenor saxophone. Titles such as "Instinct/Reverence," "Wisdom/Grace," "Integrity/Humanity" and "Beauty/Intuition" signpost some of the qualities necessary for meaningful musical dialogue—qualities that are on display in abundance in Liebman and Beirach's deeply felt interplay.

Both musicians take turns to lead, the music morphing from oblique and spacious to punchy and frenzied. There's a hint of Thelonious Monk here, an evocation of John Coltrane there, but the rhythms—from baroque to free-jazz—and the moods—contemplative, serene and playful in turn— are very much of their own design.

The second CD, Lifelines, reunites Liebman and Beirach with an old sparring partner in the form of Jack DeJohnette, who filled the drum stool on Liebman's aforementioned First Visit, a quartet outing that also featured Dave Holland. Liebman and DeJohnette were also part of Miles Davis' On The Corner (Columbia, 1972) recording sessions. Almost half a century later—this music was recorded in 2019—the collective language is subtler, in the main, with the exception of the boppish "In the Wind," which at just three minutes in length feels as much as it sounds like a homage to Charlie Parker.

From mere kernels of idea sewn by one member or another of the trio, the music gathers pace and intensity. On "Lifelines," DeJohnette switches from brushes to sticks, Liebman from tenor to soprano. These transitions mark an upsurge in the collective intensity, with Beirach cajoling inventively all the while. Here, and on the frenetic, start-stop "Firestorms, " Liebman's tenor alternatively conjures the purring lyricism and restless exploration of Wayne Shorter. There's a pronounced energy to "Nowness," with DeJohnette lighting the trio's blue touch paper. Liebman drifts in and out with scurrying soprano lines, but perhaps the most fertile ground is explored in duo by Beirach and DeJohnette, with plenty of room for the latter to shine.

DeJonette comes into his own on "Landslide," a gently shifting solo piece of subtle design. The drummer teams up with Beirach on "Synchronicity," a rhythmically bouncy piano-and-drum vignette. The trio reconvenes on "Tightrope," with Liebman on tenor once more, playing in and out in thrilling fashion. "Lamentation" wraps up an excellent session on an achingly tender, softly yearning note.

CD three is a Liebman solo recording. Though he has released a number of live solo recordings—mostly download only—in the 2000s, Aural Landscapess is his first such studio outing since the multi-tracked The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner (CPM Records, 1986). In addition to saxophones, Liebman also employs wooden flute and, on several selections, piano. Entitled "Aural Landscape" (1-15), in effect, these are explorations of mood and form. The contrasts are great, from boppish runs to introspective meditation and many places in between. Perhaps surprisingly, for one most associated with the soprano saxophone, fully nine of these improvisations find Liebman on tenor saxophone.

The tenor and soprano are, of course, two different beasts. Liebman tends to exude greater warmth on the four completely unaccompanied tenor improvisations, the exceptions being "Aural Landscape 6" and "Aural Landscape 7," both characterized by fragmentary cadences, and the noirish, though curiously tender "Aural Landscape 11." There is post-bop bustle on "Aural Landscape 10," and one can almost feel Liebman responding to the rhythm section in his head as he twists this way and that, hitting the gas in the home straight.

On soprano, Liebman toggles between fluidity and more abstract terrain, occasionally using spare piano voicings as launching pads or else to provide bottom-end counterpoint. For the most part, however, Liebman uses notes sparingly, the spaces between coloring the atmosphere of each piece as much as the notes themselves.

The eleven minutes of "Aural Landscape 13 " and "Aural Landscape 14"—the former bleeding into the latter—provide a highlight of the entire set. On these tracks, hushed, breathy tenor gives way to a series of scurrying runs, punctuated by brief pauses. A high-pitched squeal bridges the two pieces, whereupon Liebman invites sounds from opposite ends of the tenor's spectrum, his warbling in the upper registers evocative of some Asian reed instruments of the oboe family. Liebman employs all the arms at his disposal on "Aural Landscape 15;" over spidery piano accompaniment, he switches between tenor, soprano and wooden flute that whistles like the wind. It is an arresting finale to a series of improvisations marked by their depth and stylistic contrasts.

It is Beirach's turn to go solo on the fourth CD, Heart of Darkness. Starting with Hubris (ECM, 1977), Richie Beirach has produced at least fifteen solo albums in his career as of 2021. He has acknowledged the influence of Keith Jarrett as a model in his improvisations but Beirach has long stepped out of Jarrett's shadow, producing original solo work that ranges from standards and ballads to darker hued abstraction and classically informed impressionism.

All bar one of these ten pieces were improvised from scratch, their titles pinned to them only later. Beirach dedicates each improvisation to artists whom he admires—jazz and classical musicians, painters, poets and playwrights, though curiously, given the CD's title, Joseph Conrad is not among them. Minimalism and impressionism color "Long Days Journey into Night" with pulse and melody, however faint, however subtle, ever present, until a swirling storm briefly intercedes. There are darker rumblings in "Ancient Sound," where slowly chisseled melody gives way to jangling left-hand chords and fluid right-hand runs before Beirach returns to the minimalist and brooding narrative.

Melancholy pervades the spare architecture of "Footsteps in the Air," built upon a constant four-note motif. Starting with an equally economic vocabulary, Beirach steers "Black Paintings" into melodic terrain at once delicate and brooding. "Stillpoint" initially feels like a distillation of ideas explored in "Black Paintings," with space commanding greater protagonism, as though Beirach were trying to impart his emotions with the fewest notes possible, one rumbling tumble aside.

Beirach explores a more expansive and lyrical vein on "Drone Spirit" and extracts some cubist funk from the quirky yet sophisticated layers of "Quantum Jazz." On this session, however, introspection visits Beirach with wave-like relentlessness and "In the Dark Park" and "In the End My Beginning" both broadly conform to the mood of minimalist melancholy. By contrast, Beirach signs off with in lively fashion on "Heart of Darkness/Tschernobyl Diary," where dark chords, dense, flowing lines and booming echo gradually fade away, the vibrations reduced, in the end, to ghostly residue.

Not for the casual listener, Heart of Darkness will nevertheless reward those prepared to immerse themselves fully in these deeply felt dramas of one man's soul.

The fifth CD Aftermath brings Liebman and Beirach together with Florian Van Volxem on Buchla synthesizer and Leo Henriche on modified tympani and gong. Aftermath is, in some ways, the outlier in the box set. A sprawling, fifty-minute piece that marries studio technologies—a basic percussive track and overdubbed improvisations—with real-time improvisation.

It is an emotionally dark piece—in the liner notes Beirach likens it to "a dazed walk through the aftermath of a gigantic apocalypse"—lightened intermittently, relatively speaking, by Liebman's interventions on soprano and tenor saxophones and flute, which could perhaps be interpreted as beacons of hope, seeds of optimism.

Much of the eerie atmosphere that characterizes this music stems from Van Voxlem's synthesized soundscapes, which conjure sounds and images of a distant wind blowing over a desolate landscape. Beirach moves between piano and prepared piano to great effective, his manipulation of the piano's innards playing a significant role in the aura of desolation, decay and emptiness that prevails.

Chuntering soprano and high-register piano trilling, sci-fi effects, ghostly incantations and pneumatic rhythms all come and go to unnerving effect. The gentle intertwining of tenor saxophone and piano that comes around the half hour mark is a welcome pocket of balm, but the prevailing mood is edgy, oppressive even, though subtly so. At no point do any of the musicians make loud exclamations and it is this restraint that makes the ever-present tension all the more telling. Aftermath has dystopian film soundtrack written all over it.

Towards the end, Liebman juggles his instruments with more frequency and Beirach switches to electric piano, his restless daubs adding to the haunting ambiance. The gradual stripping back of the layers leaves only Beirach's simple four-note motif and a doomy, bottom-end counterpoint to end, if hardly resolve, the emotional tumult.

All the music on these five discs is dedicated to the memory of Chick Corea but it will be Beirach and Liebman who are remembered for this powerful collective statement.

A thirty-page booklet with personal notes from Beirach and Liebman on each of the five discs provides an enlightening companion to the music—a glimpse into the bold art of composing in real time.

There are also a number of striking black and white photographs. One of these situates Beirach and Liebman in the control booth of the studio, listening to a playback of some of this music. Both men have their eyes closed, a humble position of complete surrender to the music. It is the best way to appreciate their soul-bearing efforts across these five discs—without distractions or preconceptions and with an open mind.

Track Listing

CD 1 Empathy Instinct/Reverence; Wisdom/Grace; Truth/Ephemeral; Beauty/Intuition; Integrity/Humanity; Telepathy/Joy; Empathy.

CD 2 Lifelines Lifelines; Firestorm; Nowness; In the Wind; Landslide; Synchronicity; Tightrope; Lamentation.

CD 3 Aural Landscapes Aural Landscape 1; Aural Landscape 2; Aural Landscape 3; Aural Landscape 4; Aural Landscape 5; Aural Landscape 6; Aural Landscape 7; Aural Landscape 8; Aural Landscape 9; Aural Landscape 10; Aural Landscape 11; Aural Landscape 12; Aural Landscape 13; Aural Landscape 14; Aural Landscape 15.

CD 4 Improvised Dedications Long Days Journey into Night; Ancient Sound; Footsteps in the Air; Black Paintings; Stillpoint; Drone Spirit; Quantum Jazz; In the Dark Park; My End Is My Beginning; Heart of Darkness/Tschernobyl Diary.

CD 5 Aftermath


Additional Instrumentation

Dave Liebman: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (CD 1-3, 5), piano, wooden flute (CD3, 5), C-flute (CD 5); Richie Beirach: piano (CD 1-2, 4-5), prepared piano, electric piano (CD5); Jack DeJohnette: drums (CD2); Florian Van Volxem: Buchla synthesizer (CD5); Leo Henriche: modified tympani, gong (CD5).

Album information

Title: Empathy | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Jazzline Records

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