Steuart Liebig: Mentone Mentor Merges into the Fast Lane

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I think LA has a lot to offer. There
Steuart LiebigOn July 27th, LA new music mainstay Steuart Liebig curated a Cryptonight in Culver City dedicated to showcasing several of his many diverse compositional creations under the rubric, Steuart Liebig Concerto Night/ 50th Birthday Megalomania. Co-celebrants and performers included the southland A-List: woodwind multi-instrumentalists Vinny Golia and Andrew Pask, guitarist Nels Cline, trumpeter Jeff Kaiser, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, violinist Jeff Gauthier, keyboardists David Witham and Wayne Peet, and percussionist Alex Cline, among others. His second CD with the 21st century blues breakers the Mentones, Nowhere Calling (pfMENTUM, 2006), has seen release, with several new projects in the works as well. Liebig chatted in his home rehearsal studio, with a full moon rising over his classic SoCal suburban backyard citrus trees.

All About Jazz: You're a native?

Steuart Liebig: I was born in Santa Monica-haven't gone too far from the fold, I suppose.

AAJ: Some of the Mentones' roots go all the way back to [legendary LA blues/ folk club] the Ash Grove?

SL: A lot of stuff goes back to the Ash Grove, because that's when I was 14 and we used to get our parents to drive us down and check it out for King, Johnny Otis, Lightning Hopkins, and all these other people we used to go see down there, so yeah. Everything sort of came out of that. We used to see the Persuasions. Great club. Too bad it had its problems. Seemed to burn down a lot until it became the Improv. Go figure what that means. Someone didn't like [owner] Bernie Pearl. We used to go see Albert King a lot.

AAJ: He used to play LA a lot.

SL: Seemed like he did. Seemed like every six months or so. My mom took me to see a lot of weird concerts. She took me to see Sly and the Family Stone at the Forum. She took me see Yes. Iron Butterfly. I'm dating myself really badly. The United States of America. My mom knew somebody who knew those people. My mom was pretty young, she was 23 when I was born. She took me to some rehearsal they had at a loft thing in Hollywood, back when Hollywood was cheap. I saw them at the Ash Grove, and had their record when I was a kid. I lost it or got rid of it at some point and got a vinyl reissue about ten years ago. Probably more like 15 years ago, at Aron's.

Now I want to get the CD version. There's some cool stuff on there. Some of it's goofy, but some of the pop songs are really great. I think actually some of the more experimental freak out stuff is the worst, and their little pop songs like "Love Song For a Dead Che. Remember that one? Something about a Sunday morning, it's all fluttery and butterfly-ie, kinda like flying around kind of sounds and clouds. It's actually pretty interesting. Can't say the melody right now.

AAJ: So, right from the start you were going to lots of shows?

SL: I guess. Listening to records, all that stuff. My mom was a semi-pro singer, so I used to get hauled around to rehearsals, and play with my war toys outside of her singing Palestrina masses in churches in Topanga. I have always had music floating around.

AAJ: She sang mainly music from the Renaissance?

SL: She was in this band called the Greg Smith Singers who would premiere a lot of the new Stravinsky stuff that came out. She did a lot of modern stuff, too. I think she said they did some Schoenberg stuff, too. They did a lot of different things, but her real thing that she did was a lot of Renaissance and early music. I came by that stuff through her, which I really like-madrigals, motets, the writing's brilliant.

AAJ: How long had you been playing when you started with Les McCann?

SL: I started playing when I was fourteen. I started on bass. I also bought a guitar, because it's good to know chords. I fell in with some people who were hanging with Les. There was this dinner/community/jam session thing, and there was this girl who wasn't very good playing bass in it, and I said, I'll bring my guitar along. There was another guy who played bass sometimes. I thought I was just going to go out for the summer and be a roadie, but he said, "You're bringing your instruments, and I said, "Yeah, I always bring my instruments. First stop, we go to a music store. They say come along, and then they ask me, "What do you think of this guitar, and I say, "Yeah, it's alright. And they say, "Well make up your mind, you're playing through it tonight! I didn't know any of the tunes. He just put me on stage and I just had to wing it. It was pretty trippy. It was pretty abrupt. I'd played a little with him before. He did this one tune on this record that I played both bass and guitar on. Then I ended up doing the band thing.

There was another guitarist, so I was playing backup guitar. Les was trying to get him to do a certain kind of solo on this tune, and the guy couldn't do it because he was trying to play all this hip shit. I was just a dumb wanna play blues rock, or like Davey Johnston in Elton John's band. There was a thing where you could just play the big blues rock thing. I did that, and he liked what I did on this thing, so I ended up playing a bunch of solos which tweaked the other guy, so he ended up quitting. I got a friend of mine on the gig, and I was still the rhythm guitarist. It was all very strange. I was just turning twenty, so that was '76. I probably went out in June of '76, and I lasted until about June or July of '79. Then I went back to school.

I played bass on a couple things, but I was just really sick of playing guitar. I didn't relate to it. I was okay at it. I've played it in bar bands since to buy my basses. But I don't even own a guitar at this point. I keep thinking maybe I should.

AAJ: Where'd you go to school?

SL: I studied double bass at Cal State Northridge. I did pretty much the whole classical thing. I had an upright bass and I used to get together with [pianist] John Beasley every Sunday morning and play McCoy Tyner tunes. But that's completely different from playing with a bow, and trying to play all these intense written parts. I could read chord changes, but I couldn't read a whole mess of notes, so I had a huge learning curve when I went to school. They reamed me when I got there. "You shouldn't be doing this, you should leave and become a janitor. By the time I got out, they were saying, "That's the best senior recital we've heard in a long time. I'm so obstinate; I just had to show them they were wrong about me.

In orchestra rehearsal, a lot of times the bass players weren't playing through certain things, so I'd get the scores and I'd be going through the scores checking out what everyone else was doing. I took comp classes, got really interested in the writing aspect of things.

AAJ: Was that your introduction to theory?

SL: No, back in high school I went to a free school. We had a theory teacher who was a studio guitarist. Nice guy, but he had to leave. They were trying out some other people, and they hired this new guy, and the first day he comes in, the guitar guy says to the new guy, "Yeah, I've been teaching them about jazz, you know the good stuff, not like [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman. And the guy says, "That's actually my favorite stuff. The guy's name was [mulit-instrumentalist] Dean Drummond, and if you ever see a copy of [composer] Harry Partch's The Delusion and the Fury (Columbia, 1999), he's one of the people playing on the cover of that. He was a second generation Partch disciple. We'd learned diminished scales, but this guy started hitting us with analysis, and turning us on to really different stuff. Got us into Partch, went and saw one of the big concerts at UCLA, turns out Nels [Cline] and Alex [Cline] went too. We were probably fifteen rows away.

That's where I got more into theory. And then Nels and I had the same theory teacher at Santa Monica College. That's where I met him. We met in the jazz band. We used to do stuff in between all the boring Neal Hefti tunes. We do quasi-[guitarist] George Benson-y things, because Nels was really into George Benson at that point. He wanted to do that kind of thing, plus all the other weird stuff he was already doing. That's where we hooked up.

AAJ: How did the contrabass guitar come into your life?

SL: When I got out of Northridge, I wanted a six-string bass. In certain bands, I was playing 3 different basses with 3 different tunings. So, I went to the NAMM show, played this bass, was completely floored. My mom helped me cosign a loan, I sent off the money and hoped I liked the bass, because it was more than I'd paid for an instrument ever. I started playing bar gigs on guitar to pay for it, so there I was playing "Brown Sugar. I can fake [guitarist] Keith Richards fairly easily at certain points. The truth is, I don't really love the sound of the electric bass. The technique is what I grew up with, and a lot of what I hear is based on it.

Sound-wise, I like the acoustic bass better, so I try to find that in there. I'm developing a sound I like on electric, but most electric bass players, not doing it for me. The bow is a humiliation situation for me, because if I'm going to do it, I need to do some bowing. Many, many hours of diligent hard work. I got my degree in the thing, but to get a good sound out of a bow, not easy. Everything's really super precise, it's very unforgiving. I've had the six-string now since the second tour with Julius, twenty one years. I'm sold on the higher register, it gives me a lot or range.

AAJ: You must have played the Century City Playhouse.

SL: The only time I ever played there was with Wayne Peet, and this other guy I knew from my High School who said I should go to Northridge, a rock-jazz-classical guy, now he's doing country. He ended up doing a lot of casuals, and got burnt out, so he just wanted to play country music after that. He got me into [composer Krystof] Penderecki. He knew [trombonist] John Rapson, [multi-instrumentalist] John Stephens, and Wayne Peet. They wanted him to play bass on something, and he recommended me. I played with the Joe Dopler Quintet, or something like that. I think they called it a quintet, but there were more than five. That's how I met Wayne, and I think that's the first time the Clines met Wayne. I remember talking to them about Wayne afterwards.

I wasn't really into the whole Century City Playhouse thing, I was much more like a satellite out there somewhere. I was doing rock bands, and more mainstream jazz. I was playing with a Latino disco band out in Pacoima. I played with [singer] Dianne Reeves and [pianist] Billy Childs at the Comeback Inn in Venice, every Saturday night for six months, and Sunday matinees. I was the sub-bassist.

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