An album based around music by Mendelssohn, Mahler and other classical composers might sound a little too polite for expressionist saxophonist Dave Liebman. But Vienna Dialogues
, a followup to the more in-character Manhattan Dialogues
(Zoho, 2005), demonstrates what anyone who has followed his career already knows. Liebman has always been a player who can immerse himself in any setting, capture its essence and still sound completely himself. Vienna Dialogues
simply challenges Liebman, in duet with young pianist Bobby Avey, to approach interpretation and improvisation in a different way.
Some view classical music as inherently restrictive. One typically doesn't get the opportunity to play "off the page, making asserting one's voice a more difficult proposition. Instead of being liberal with the notes, it's all about nuance and inflection. Here, however, Liebman and Avey have crafted arrangements of musiclargely from the Romantic period of the 19th Centurythat are reverential, yet allow a greater degree of exploration.
Schumann's "Romance Op. 94 No. 2 begins on a majestic note, and Liebman shares its sublime theme with Avey. Liebman, who plays soprano throughout, approaches the material faithfully; but towards the end of this lied (art song), the duo becomes just a little bolder, and Liebman's strong voice becomes self-evident. Chopin's "Etude in E Flat Minor Op. 62 No. 1 is darker, and Liebman takes even greater liberties.
What makes the album work is the absence of a "jazz meets classical shtick. The musicians' honesty avoids cuteness or coyness, despite the fact that this is a clear fusion of aesthetics. The Schubert medley "Tränenregen/Wasserflut begins gently enough, Avey's classicism feeling very much the way Ralph Towner might approach the material. When Liebman enters, the drama gradually increases, his solo becoming bolder and more Coltrane-like. His tone becomes harsher, seeming to cry out over Avey's modal block chord accompaniment.
One can hear the influence of Debussy's "Fleur des Blés on contemporaries like Erik Satie, who was only fourteen at the time this song was composed in 1880. Liebman and Avey capture the song's elegant simplicity as well as its greater depth and more modernistic harmonic conception.
The album's sequencing traces the evolution that took place during the Romantic period by placing material by latter-day composers Debussy and Mahler at the end of the program. It also allows Liebman and Avey's approach to unfold gradually, itself moving towards more open-ended investigation.
Vienna Dialogues is a strong introduction to Avey, as well as a disc that fleshes out Liebman's substantial body of work in an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable fashion.