In January of 2020, Dave Liebman was at Fábrica de Arte in Havana. First he spoke to a packed audience of rapt young Cuban acolytes about how he came to love this music and then he played. Remarkably you heard everything he spoke about come through in his music. Life – with all its joys and sorrows – comes flowing out freely in his music every time he plays – his version of life, that is – and this is what makes every note that Mr Liebman play sound unlike any that others play. In fact deep listeners will be able to discern Mr Liebman right from the first phrase that comes from the bell of his saxophones or out of his flute.
Listening to Mr Liebman play – no matter what woodwind instrument that might be – I can’t help but feel like an interloper spying upon two lovers exploring each other’s anatomy. His playing has a certain physicality to it; as if he is caressing the curves of a lover’s body. And as this saxophone; this flute comes alive to his touch and his breath you can hear in its yelps and squeals shouts of joy… and when (as you can hear on the duo album with Martial Solal) they (saxophone and player) both gasp and shout together , it is like a melodic hallelujah sung together.
Naturally Mr Liebman is on intimate terms with his instrument. Together they have weathered life together. The musician, meanwhile, has grown from the boy wonder (who graced ensembles such as Miles Davis’ and how own Lookout Farm) to a kind of Jedi-master of woodwinds. The fire and brimstone of his youth has made way for the gorgeous, well-honed values of experience. But he still plays with visceral passion and emotion, each melodic variation following the other inexorably, just like each silken textural rasp nuzzles into the other as it nudges the one in a tectonic shift.
As a recording musician Mr Liebman is also remarkably prolific. Some of his favourite settings are with piano – best documented in his partnership with Richie Beirach – and with his group Expansions. But he is much sought after by others too. In the past eighteen months or so he has laid down music with Expansions and we also a splendid duo document recorded in France (albeit from 2016), his playing with the great French pianist, Martial Solal.
Listening to each of these recordings in solitary splendour over and over again brings allusions to the inner landscape of Mr Liebman’s jeweller-like sensibility. How he feels the sound course through his body the way others merely hear it; how he crafts each note and phrase into a gemlike ornament of emotion; every combustible line suggests that a fiery ignition is never far away as we marvel at how he reveals himself and the characters that surround him in his story; a story revealed in the heart of song.
The Dave Liebman Expansions Group: Earth This is the fourth and final segment in Dave Liebman’s “elements” quartet that has taken all of twenty-three years to finish. The title of the recording may be a noun but the music, in structure and execution, is a mighty geological metaphor. The textures produced by each musical instrument evoke the rough, scarred, furrowed, verdant and resplendent prospect strata of the earth; their shifting relationships in each song, describing the massive natural forces that shape the planet.
Sometimes these (instrumental) strata stack up immensely (as in “The Sahara”, “Grand Canyon/Mt Everest” and on “Concrete Jungle”); at other moments, they thin to the most diaphanous textures (the sound of the cymbals and the electronic wind synthesizer melded in with Mr Liebman’s wooden recorder and in the music of “Dust to Dust”).
As the music progresses and the instruments draw nearer to each other; then further apart, there is a feeling that things might even disintegrate. But inevitably there is always a sense of returning to the same point – even after the spookily elegant “Galaxy” – only to discover that the view has changed in the interim. On top of these seismic textural processes Mr Liebman and the members of his Expansions ensemble create a virtuoso orchestral superstructure whose riotous details suggest the teeming (and otherwise) surface life of Earth in all its protean variety.
Throughout, Mr Liebman leads his ensemble through this preternatural mosaic, his voice redolent of a collective humanity navigating its way across a changeless blue realm.
Track list – 1: Earth Theme; 2: Bass Interlude; 3: Volcano/Avalanche; 4: Percussion/Flute Interlude; 5: The Sahara; 6: Soprano Saxophone Interlude; 7: Grand Canyon/Mt. Everest; 8: Drum Interlude; 9: Concrete Jungle; 10: Piano Interlude; 11: Dust to Dust; 12: Wind Synthesizer Interlude; 13: Galaxy; 14: Earth Theme
Personnel – Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone, wooden flute and recorder; Bobby Avey: Vintage Vibe piano and acoustic piano; Matt Vashlishan: wind synthesizer; Tony Marino: electric bass; Alex Ritz: drums and kanjira
Released – 2020
Label – Whaling City Sound (WCS 120)
Runtime – 47:37
Martial Solal & Dave Liebman: Masters in Paris A timely reminder – not that one was ever needed) that Dave Liebman is deeply entrenched in the tradition. His encounter with the great Martial Solal is proof of that. And yet through near-restless and peripatetic improvisation both saxophonist and pianist traverse the seemingly limitless melodic, harmonic and rhythmic topography of music. The connection appears to be near instantaneous and continuous as Mr Liebman and Mr Solal begin melodies, often from diametrically opposite ends of the melodic spectrum. Yet they not only intersect, but seem hover in each other’s shadow.
The repertoire is as bracing – even breathtaking – as these musicians’ performances. Charts are picked from the Duke Ellington Songbook – such as “Satin Doll” and music made famous on Broadway – such as “Summertime”, to music associated with Dizzy Gillespie (“A Night in Tunisia”) and music that is standard literature in the realm of Jazz – such as “Stella By Starlight” and “What is This Thing Called Love”.
Through it all you might discern musicians “dancing” on a spot-lit (but otherwise darkened) stage – now coming together melodically then suddenly peeling apart as each pursues a harmonic cue. All of this leads to innovation that lopes and bounds ever onward, occasionally leaping in great parabolas as if encircling each other’s wake before returning to the original melody.
This must surely be one of the best impromptu encounters between musicians – certainly on par with the legendary encounters between pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Like those iconic recordings this one also shows what happens when two improvising musicians meet in the realm of song… How the heart sings…
Track list – 1: A Night in Tunisia; 2: Stella By Starlight; 3: In and Out; 4: Night and Day; 5: Small One; 6: Satin Doll; 7: Summertime; 8: What is This Thing Called Love; 9: Coming Yesterday
Personnel – Martial Solal: piano; Dave Liebman: saxophones
Released – 2020
Label – Sunnyside Records
Runtime – 1: 12:27