It is always nice to have a goal in life, something that urges you to arise in the morning and face the day ahead. For saxophonist Dave Liebman, that goal means catching the "Trane" he has been chasing for more than sixty yearsever since, as a teenager, he first saw the legendary John Coltrane at Birdland in New York City. It is an admirable goal, made even more tantalizing because it is one that Liebman is quite sure he has virtually no chance of reaching. Nevertheless, Liebman keeps his eyes on the prize and shoulder to the wheel, recording tribute albums such as Selflessness to his muse while enhancing his own status as one of the world's foremost contemporary soprano saxophonists.
Selflessness consists of eight of Trane's compositions and the one standard most closely associated with him, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music), played here not as a waltz, a la Coltrane, but in straight 4/4 time. The themes are performed by Liebman's working quartet, Expansions (Bobby Avery on piano; Tony Marino on bass; Alex Ritz on drums) with saxophonist Matt Vashlishan added to share the front line with Liebman. That proves to be an excellent choice, as Vashlishan adds weight and color on alto, flute or clarinet. Liebman shows his own "selflessness" (and self-confidence) by allowing Vashlishan (on alto) and Avery to take the album's opening solos before weighing in on "Mr. Day."
Unlike some albums, on which he now and then plays alto or even tenor saxophone, Liebman stays with soprano all the way on Selflessness, making Vashlishan's balancing presence all the more pleasing. That is not to imply that Liebman couldn't carry the session himself, only that it is always helpful to entertain divergent and no less valid points of view, and Vashlishan has a number of interesting statements to make. Even though this is for the most part music from Coltrane's "later" period, it is well-designed and synchronous, with a minimum of freelancing by anyone. If there is a downside, it is that Coltrane's later compositions, earnest and thoughtful as they may be, simply are not as inherently interesting as those on which he cut his teeth. That is, of course, no more or less than an opinion, one that may not be shared by many a Coltrane enthusiast.
Besides "Mr. Day" and "My Favorite Things," the songs performed here include "Compassion," "Ole" (not the sort of Latin fiesta one might expect), "Lazy Bird," "Peace on Earth," "One Up One Down," "Selflessness" and "Dear Lord." Vashlishan plays wind synth on "Compassion," clarinet on "Ole," flute on "Peace on Earth" and "Dear Lord," while Liebman doubles on wooden flute on "Ole." Avery and Marino play their parts well, even though Marino's bass could have been recorded a tad more robustly. Selflessness is a generally ardent and engaging homage that may be a few paces removed from a masterpiece but otherwise lends scant cause for complaint. Although Liebman may not have caught that elusive Trane, he keeps edging closer and closer.
Mr. Day; Compassion; My Favorite Things; Olé; Lazy Bird; Peace on Earth; One Up One Down;
Selflessness; Dear Lord.
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