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We Three: Three for All

John Kelman By

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Just because artists have played with each other in other contexts doesn't necessarily mean they will be successful when they come together as a unit for the first time. Saxophonist Dave Liebman has worked with electric bassist Steve Swallow before—most notably on Swallow's first release as a leader, Home (ECM, 1980)—and drummer Adam Nussbaum in an early group also featuring a young John Scofield. Nussbaum has been Swallow's drummer of choice for many years, most notably on his marvellous trio record, Damaged in Transit (XtraWATT/ECM, 2004).

But all three have never worked together before. While there's enough individual chemistry to suggest that putting them in a room together would be a slam dunk, that's not guaranteed to be the case. Fortunately, these three don't just work well together, they sound as if they've been doing it for years, making their new group We Three and its debut album Three for All as easygoing and effortless an affair as one could ask for.

Considering the strong personalities involved, what's most refreshing about Three for All is how purely collaborative it is, reflecting each player's personality. Swallow has always possessed a dry sense of humour, and his three contributions manage to be challenging while keeping tongue planted firmly in cheek. Even his gentle ballad "The Start of Something Small feels just the slightest bit idiosyncratic. Liebman's cascading notes suggest greater power, but never lose sight of the delicate underpinning from Nussbaum's brushwork. Jaco Pastorius may be most cited as the player who redefined the potential of the electric bass, but Swallow's approach—exploiting the full range of the instrument and combining harmonically suggestive lines with more direct chord voicings—is uniquely innovative just the same, though it may not have the same panache.

Considering Liebman's propensity for post-Coltrane expressionism, his two contributions—the metrically challenged but subdued "Cycling and the gradually building "The Jewish Warrior —are surprisingly understated, despite their unassailable swing. Still, his soprano solo on "The Jewish Warrior burns as brightly as anything on the disc, and Nussbaum is right there with him, starting on brushes, but eventually switching to sticks and ultimately greater force.

Still, despite the occasional burst of heat, Three for All is so relaxed that one can forget just how potent a combination this is. Despite the drummer's energetic and telepathically locked-in support from Swallow, as well as Liebman's leaning-to-the- extreme tenor work, Nussbaum's "BTU —a carryover from his work in guitarist John Abercrombie's organ trio—retains a litheness that doesn't use that energy as a crutch, but rather a tool for organic evolution.

A pensive reading of "I Only Have Eyes for You, a look at Miles Davis' "All Blues that proves you can swing in 5/4, and a wry take on Thelonious Monk's "Played Twice support the trio's unhurried approach with its own material. Three for All is an album that's so inherently cohesive, it almost passes by unnoticed. But its staying power rests in the greater depth it reveals with each successive listen.

Visit Dave Liebman, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum on the web.


Track Listing: What Time Is It; Played Twice; We 3; Up and Adam; The Jewish Warrior; Whistling Past the Graveyard; I Only Have Eyes for You; Cycling; All Blues; The Start of Something Small; BTU.

Personnel: Dave Liebman: saxophones, flutes; Steve Swallow: electric bass; Adam Nussbaum: drums.

Title: Three for All | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Challenge Records


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