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Dave Liebman / Michael Stephans: Nomads

John Kelman By

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If ever there was a title to best fit Dave Liebman, it would be Nomads. Stylistically, the reedman's life has represented an endless traverse of infinite musical landscapes, ranging from freely improvised music with Australia-based pianist Mike Nock on Duologue (Birdland, 2007), and modern, open-ended mainstream with longtime musical partner, pianist Richie Beirach—heard most recently on the Mosaic box set, Pendulum: Live at the Village Vanguard (2008)—to Miles Davis-informed fusion on Back on the Corner (Tone Center, 2007) and the world-influenced Lookout Farm (ECM, 1974). Percussionist Michael Stephans is lesser known but, with a multi-disciplinary life spanning education, writing, and performing, he's an equal searcher in the musical continuum, a recent participant on reedman Bennie Maupin's wonderful comeback, Penumbra (Cryptogramophone, 2006).



Saxophone is Liebman's main axe—more specifically, the soprano, on which no other jazz player has built so personal a sound and discography since the death of John Coltrane. Over his 40-year-plus career, however, he's expanded his sonic arsenal. On Nomads' series of free improvisations, original compositions, and free-wheeling standards reinventions, Liebman also plays piano, flutes, drums, and, on "Down and Gone," even recites one of Stephans' poems, accompanied by the drummer—heard, this time, on piano. In addition to piano, drums, and percussion, Stephans plays e-flat valve trombone on his own "Connect the Dots," which swings freely thanks to Liebman's surprisingly fine drumming; cornet on another original, his abstruse tribute to Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, "Sparrows," with Lieb on soprano; and Tibetan singing bowls on the eastern-tinged and aptly titled closing improv, "Ephemeral."



Clearly these are players with ears and minds wide open. The opening title track finds them in a game of call-and-response before settling into a more rhythm-heavy focus on Liebman's wooden flute and Stephans' uncharacteristically melodic drum kit. Liebman's tenor sets a gritty tone for "Mingus Ah Um," while Stephans' hip hop beat and rap link a contemporary genre with the freer beat poetry of the 1950s.



The covers are just as compelling...and unpredictable. Keith Jarrett's "The Windup" opens with a drum solo in New Orleans Second Line territory but, when Liebman's soprano enters for the familiar theme, Stephans quickly lightens up. Still, once the soloing begins, the gloves come off as the two engage in a fiery exchange that doesn't lose sight of Jarrett's original intent. Duke Ellington's "Dusk" gets a dramatic reading, this time with Liebman on piano, while the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler classic, "Get Happy," turns bouyant, with Stephans and Liebman (on tenor) keeping the momentum of the changes implied, even when reduced to nothing more than a linear instrument and drums.



Which is, ultimately, the beauty of Nomads. A free blowing session at its core, perhaps, but Liebman and Stephans' allegiance to the essence of every song—spontaneous or preconceived—remains paramount throughout. Such attention elevates Nomads beyond its admittedly exciting interplay to music truly without boundaries, where freedom means the choice to do anything this intrepid duo desires.



Visit Dave Liebman and Michael Stephans on the web.

Track Listing: Nomads; The Windup; Dusk; Get Happy; Sparrows; Mingus Ah Um; Orange Moon; Tie Those Laces; Down and Gone; Connect the Dots; Honeysuckle Rose; Imagination; Shape Shifters; Ephemeral.

Personnel: Dave Liebman: wood flute, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, drums, spoken word; Michael Stephans: percussion, pocket cornet, piano, drums, alto trombone.

Title: Nomads | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ITMP

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