Best of birthdays to the master saxophonist-composer-improviser-educator-author Dave Liebman, who turns 70 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article I had an opportunity to write about him in 2010 (see a .pdf here), most of the raw proceedings of a Blindfold Test we did in 2013, and a 2006 WKCR conversation that ran on the late, lamented jazz.com website in 2008.
Jazziz Article, 2019:
During the last week of February, Dave Liebman, two nights into a Tuesday-Saturday run at Birdland with the Saxophone Summit sextet, was easing into his day in the “sitting room” of the midtown time-share suite he occupies when he gigs, teaches, or does business in New York. The group was convening for the first time since a summer 2017 tour of Europe that generated their fifth album, Street Talk (Enja), comprised of six originals by the personnel that provided the raw materials for a firebreathing opening night first set. Flanked to the right by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, an original member, and to the left by alto saxophonist Greg Osby, a recent addition, Liebman, 72, played soprano saxophone in the jab-and-thrust style of his one-time employer, Miles Davis, projecting searing, intervallically daring lines in a constant dance with a provocative, proactive rhythm section — pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and the shamanistic mind-reading drummer Billy Hart.
Liebman plucked Street Talk from a pile of CDs atop a glass coffee table. “I started Saxophone Summit because of my relationship with Michael Brecker,” he said, noting that the iconic tenor saxophonist had been integral to the group’s identity until his death in 2007. Liebman added that during the early ’70s, when he was entering the international jazz conversation via consecutive long-haul gigs with Elvin Jones and Miles, Brecker inherited his $125-a-month fourth-floor loft space at 138 W. 19th Street, a no-elevator building into which Liebman moved with pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa in January 1969. By year’s end, Chick Corea and Dave Holland, then famously in Miles’ employ, each had their own floor.
“I had the key on a string; cats would ring the bell and I’d lower it out the window,” Liebman recalled, not mentioning that, for him, walking has been a complicated proposition since he contracted polio at age 3. At the ensuing jam sessions that transpired, John Coltrane’s late career vocabulary — “chaotic, loud, cacophony, and deep as hell” — was their lodestar and lingua franca. That’s why, in 1998, after a Coltrane tribute concert in Japan, Liebman told his old friend: “It’s time for us to put this back on the map; if we don’t do this, who will? It’s our debt to Trane.”
“Joe was the obvious pick for third saxophone, and Michael trusted me to pick the rhythm section,” he continued. “I wanted to get him on the free jazz thing again, the way we did it in our youth. I wanted free jazz to be understood — and during the late ’90s it wasn’t being done. Big statement. We put a couple of years into playing like that.”
Liebman, whose website discography cites 500+ leader, co-leader or sideman titles, returned to the pile, and grabbed Eternal Voices (CMP), his forthcoming 50th or so collaboration with pianist Richie Beirach. They celebrate a half century of friendship and mutual investigation with a series of open improvisations of redactions of the slow movements of Bartok’s string quartets, and works by Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mompou and Faure. Below it was Chi (Rare Noise), an intense, flowing concert with drummers Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake — it echoes the spirit of Coltrane’s Meditations Suite, which Liebman has performed at five-year intervals since the 1980s.
Then came the last two installments of four extended works intended, as Liebman, put it, “to musically depict the natural elements that surround us.” The third “elements suite,” Fire (Jazzline), is a programmatic six-part work, beginning with “Flash!” and ending with “Ashes”; Liebman, Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Ken Werner interpret each stage with unrelenting energy and rhythmic verve. Performing the final suite, Earth (Whaling City) is the current edition of the Dave Liebman Group, which, on its fifth record, authoritatively interprets Liebman’s intervallically complex, sonically extravagant compositions. Except for veteran bassist Tony Marino, who first recorded with Liebman in 1992, it’s a youngish quintet — Bobby Avey on piano and Matt Vashlishan on EWI, both one-time mentees of Liebman and Phil Woods in the Delaware Water Gap area where Liebman resides, and drummer Alex Ritz, an Oberlin student of Hart and drum-master Jamey Haddad, who himself played on 11 Liebman recordings during the 1990s.
Finally, Liebman glanced at Petite Fleur (Origin), a melody-drenched duo with guitarist John Stowell — their second — devoted to the oeuvre of soprano saxophone pioneer Sidney Bechet, and On The Corner, Live! (Ear Up), named for the famously funky 1972 Miles Davis album that Liebman launched with a soprano saxophone solo, on which he covers repertoire from Miles’ plugged-in era with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, electric bassist Victor Wooten and ex-Weather Report drummer Chester Thompson.
“As this pile demonstrates, I am prolific, thankfully, and very eclectic,” Liebman said. “It’s important to record. It makes me think about what I’d want to hear if I was listening to Dave Liebman, and whether it would come across. I want to do something for my posterity, that satisfies my interests at that moment — hopefully somebody else will want to get on the train. I’m a big finisher. Once you record something, you can forget about it, and move on to the next thing.”
However many projects Liebman finishes and moves on from, he consistently acknowledges his teachers and his roots. The same imperatives that moved him to urge Brecker to embark on Saxophone Summit inspired the conception and execution of his solo recital To My Masters, perhaps the most personal of the CDs on the coffee table. Each piece portrays, in Liebman’s words, “a person who had a direct influence on my playing — who affected my vision, made me what I am artistically, and, in some cases, even more so, what I am as a person.”
As an example, “The Guide” is a shout-out to drummer Rakalam Bob Moses, who met Liebman in 1962, and served a Sybil-esque function for Liebman’s Aeneas by revealing pathways into the hardcore jazz wars that lay ahead. “The Jazzman” is Charles Lloyd, who was on the cusp of stardom in 1966, when, on Moses’ recommendation, Liebman pigeonholed him at the Half Note bar after a set with Cannonball Adderley and asked for lessons — which, as it turned out, would be more observational and experiential than technical. “The Intellectual” is Beirach, Liebman’s mentor on the of 20th century harmony, which, he says, “was a definite void in my education — we’ve tried to play the way the 20th century composers wrote, pretty far away from the key center.”
An earlier teacher was renowned woodwind pedagogue Joe Allard, referenced in “The Sound Guru (Overtone Improvisation).” Liebman entered Allard’s orbit at 16, already a three-year veteran of Catskills gigs in a group led by future David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson. “We made $15 a week,” Liebman says. “It made me feel important, different, unique — ‘Hey, man, I’m ahead of you.’ I was in charge of the yearly high school show and the prom. Of course, my parents encouraged that, because the whole schematic was that I’d go to medical school and be an orthopedic surgeon. Medical school was within reach then; if you worked and saved your pennies, you could go.”
Liebman’s paradigm began to shift in February 1962, when he took a date to hear John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy at Birdland. Soon thereafter, feeling he could do better than his three-hour Saturday morning lesson with Mr. Shapiro, Liebman heeded his mother’s advice to look in the Yellow Pages under “Saxophone Instruction.” He made some calls, and thought that Allard “seemed to be the nicest on the phone.”
Allard told the aspirant that lessons at his Carnegie Hall studio — half-an-hour on the subway from his Flatbush neighborhood — were $25 for a 50-minute to one-hour session. “My mother said, ‘Carnegie Hall Studios. Wow, he must be quite impressive.’ His point was that to blow is to breathe is to sing is to speak. In other words, it’s all coming from the vocal cords. Since you don’t feel your vocal cords, this was a little hard to follow. After six weeks or so I said to my mom, ‘This guy is very famous, it seems, and I know it’s Carnegie Hall and everything, but I’m not doing any books — I don’t know what I’m doing.’ She said, ‘Wait a bit.’ Then eventually, of course, it all clicked in. Joe opened the door. Now I’ve written a book on it, which is kind of the text on how to do this stuff.”
Liebman attributes much of his educational focus and can-do attitude to Leo and Frances Liebman, evoked in the “The Parents,” a gentle, resolute tenor saxophone incantation that opens the proceedings. They were Brooklyn-based schoolteachers — and assistant principals — in a pre-union era when teachers “were not treated with great generosity by the city.” During the school year his father ran an after-school community center; summers, he did counseling at a Catskills camp where his mother taught arts and crafts.
“I was sick a lot after I had polio,” Liebman said. “My life was about who is the next doctor that’s going to cure you, who would give me the magic bullet to be able to walk more normally. So of course, there was a lot of attention and a lot of sacrifice on their part.”
His mother didn’t sugar-coat his disability. “She was pragmatic — straight-ahead, without any attitude,” he says. “In the situation I was in — having to go to doctors, have operations, break my leg a couple of times on top of it, break it on ice — there was nothing to do but just deliver the information. When you’re 4 years old, you don’t know you’re sick. You have nothing to compare it to. Now, you’ve got to make a relationship with pain as part of the game, which I have done. That’s something that will keep you awake and make you realize what’s pragmatic and what’s not pragmatic. In those days they kept you in the hospital, and I was the star — the young kid who was very good with anything.
“So already I felt a certain independence because I could stand the pain and the situation. I made up for it. Of course, I’m serious Type A. I played ball anyway. I would bat, and the cat would run for me from behind the plate. I was a good third baseman, because I dove on the ground (because of course, you have to learn to do that when you have a bad leg), and I had a good arm, so I could throw to first base. Also, I had a certain streak of leadership, which I knew pretty early. Even as a kid, I could organize and put people together. We had a group called The Rebels, because we were make-believe gangsters, and I was president of the club, etc. That’s what I’m still doing.”
Liebman’s relationship with his parents reached a “low end” after he graduated NYU. Instead of “getting a job the day after,” he rented a cabin in the Catskills, practiced 24/7, returned to New York, and — again on Moses’ recommendation — found his loft. “I had to play to get better, and I wasn’t cut out for club dates or studio work,” he said. “I got a teaching license and subbed in schools two days a week, and I was playing in the Village. My parents were saying, ‘What are you going to do in life, David? How are you going to live when you can’t walk? I said, ‘I don’t know. I hope I can do this, because I’m going to do it for a few years.’ Then the breaks came, and the rest is history, so to speak. We had our scenes. But after I played Carnegie Hall with Miles in 1974, the concert that became Dark Magus, my mother said, “you must be good; you’re at Carnegie Hall.”
Frances Liebman wasn’t there to see her son receive his NEA Jazz Master Award in 2010, proffered not only in recognition of his prodigious accomplishments as a performer and composer, but to honor his stature in the jazz education world, denoted by the seven much-read pedagogical books available on his website and his service as artistic director and founder of the International Association of Schools of Jazz, whose thirtieth annual meeting convenes this summer in Zagreb. Indeed, Liebman’s relentless work ethic so palpably denotes inherent optimism that it surprised me when, in a 2010 conversation, he acknowledged reality with the remark, “It’s inevitable that I will not be walking so easily in ten years or so…but I’m riding the horse as long as it goes.”
Still resolute in 2019, Liebman intends to sustain the ride. “By the time you get in your seventies, if you don’t have something fucked up, you’re REALLY lucky. It’s not worth talking about. But it’s disturbing. I hope I can make the next gig. I’m concerned about making a living and being able to do it. If I don’t show, we don’t get paid. We don’t get severance pay. I’m not trying to be paranoid, but I’m aware of my circumstances. Others are worse, so I don’t complain about it in that respect.
“I’m amazed I can still keep doing it. I feel good about it. But how many cover records can I do, and how many of my tunes can I record? How can I keep the spark alive? I want to do Stephen Sondheim. I want to do a record of Jewish chants, what they sing at Yom Kippur. I’d love to do some more duos. When I look at this pile at this table, I go, ‘So far, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.’”
“That’s a very good observation of my personality,” Liebman said, to a suggestion that his views run optimistic and pessimistic in equal measure. “When things are fair, they should be 50-50, whatever game you’re playing. Yin and yang.”
He applied this perspective when asked his thoughts on the state of 21st century jazz. “It’s the most interesting the music’s ever been,” Liebman said. “Couldn’t be better. Because of Youtube, you can be in the Thailand jungle and see Coltrane play in your pajamas, and if you’re interested you’ll end up transcribing it, even though you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Having yinned, Liebman yanged. “I can’t have optimism about the business,” he said. “It’s in terrible shape and it’s going to get worse, and business controls a lot of what we do in this world, so I’m not happy about it. You get a review, and you’ve won the game. The schools have done a great job, but we’ve also cut ourselves off at the legs because we created this monster of all this talent with nowhere to go. These kids come out, they’ve spent a couple of hundred thousand going to school, debts up the gazoo, and they’ll play one night at 11 and 1 o’clock in the band at Smalls — and they’ll play great. Outside New York, there isn’t anywhere to do anything. It’s not just jazz — it’s photography, art, poetry, theater, journalism. Everything that has to do with the human spirit is being slowly squeezed.”
What motivates him to persevere? “I believe in this shit. Jazz is a special music. It unites people, put them together in a working situation, like a corporation, like a business, like building a car. You’ve got to make sure you put the tire on right, or the next guy is going to get hurt. We have that in jazz, every minute we’re playing together. Tonight we’re going to do 2 or 3 hours of it. It’s a great communion.”
Downbeat Article, 2010:
Right after the Dave Liebman Group’s first set at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village on the third Friday of September, the leader stepped to the bar and ordered a shot of Stoli, water back. Coffee might have been a more predictable beverage of choice—Liebman had just arrived from Boston after a seven-hour crawl along I-95, with only a quick bite and shave before hit time. He observed that at 64 his famously kinetic personality remains Type A. “It’s the reverse of most people—coffee slows me down,” Liebman said.
Liebman was supporting a new DLG release, Turnaround: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (Jazz Werkstadt), which earned a German Jazz Journalists’ Best Record of 2010 award, but on this evening he offered no Coleman repertoire, instead presenting a plugged-in set comprising originals by guitarist Vic Juris, electric bassist Tony Marino, and himself, from an 80-tune book accrued over two decades as a unit. The tunes were heavy on sonic texture, straight eighths and odd meters, stroked declaratively by drummer Marko Marcinko; playing only soprano saxophone, Liebman darted through them like a trumpeter, placing his phrases carefully, surefootedly inserting polyrhythms into his line, projecting an array of tonal attacks while retaining precise pitch however extreme the register or interval.
Liebman remarked that the previous evening’s program, at Sculler’s, before “an older audience, not quite suit-and-tie” who had paid a $20 cover ($58 with dinner) for the privilege, contained three Coleman tunes. “This is a $150 door gig,” he said, noting the 55 Bar’s $10 admission and narrow confines. “I’m going to play whatever the fuck I want.” He fleshed out that sentiment over the phone 36 hours later, refreshed from sleeping in after a third consecutive one-nighter, also a door gig, at the Falcon in Piermont, New York, 25 miles up the Hudson River.
“The audience at a place like Sculler’s knows me from Lookout Farm or Elvin Jones,” Liebman said, referencing his popular mid ‘70s ensemble and the 1971-72 sideman gig that launched his name into the international jazz conversation. “I’m not going to hit them with our strongest, most obscure stuff—you don’t gather that many more people over the years unless you have a machine, which I don’t. The Ornette tunes are a hook and there’s a certain cache to getting that prize, but we’re done with it. The truth is that nobody knows the record, and nobody ever will.”
It was observed that Liebman, a 2011 NEA Jazz Master and, as of December 2009, Officier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters, had gone to considerable pains to play a pair of door gigs.
“It’s below me,” he acknowledged. “But I can’t get this group a five-night gig in a New York club because they think we won’t do enough business. I believe in longevity—loyalty to the guys, and vice-versa, loyalty to me as a leader. To keep them together, I’ve got to keep them busy and interested, which means music that keeps them challenged. At 55 Bar we played a new regime of music I settled on three months ago when I saw the next bunch of work coming.”
Four days hence, piggybacking on the NEA honorific, Liebman and crew would embark on a nine-day, six-gig San Diego to Portland van trip—no door gigs—to be followed by a final East Coast leg comprising a celebratory concert at the Deer Head Inn, a few miles from his eastern Pennsylvania home, and weekend one-offs in Vermont and Maine. Between then and December, when the Group was booked for several weeks in Europe, Liebman, who had spent the summer participating in various master class workshops and 20th anniversary festivities for the International Association of Jazz Schools, which he co-founded and artistic-directs, would resume his position at Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches chromatic harmony. Midway through October, backed by MSM’s Chamber Jazz Ensemble, he’d perform original music composed for the concert attendant to his Officier designation, sandwiched by two appearances by the Dave Liebman Big Band in support of As Always (MAMA), a 2010 release on which he fronts an ensemble of various New York best-and-brightests, playing their charts of tunes that span his entire timeline as a professional musician.
These events comprised only a small portion of an exceptionally prolific period of musical production in which Liebman intersects primarily with associates of long acquaintance. “I’m pretty good at adapting myself in a lot of situations,” Liebman remarked. “If I can do something once every 18 months to two years, there’s continuity.” He could now retrospect on a post Labor Day week at Birdland playing tunes with an “all-star” quartet—pianist Steve Kuhn, electric bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Billy Drummond. He’d return in February, beginning the month with Saxophone Summit, the collective sextet in which he, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, propelled by pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, refract repertoire from the various stages of John Coltrane’s career; ending it with Quest, the collective, open-ended quartet that Liebman describes as “Miles and Coltrane—the ‘60s, basically, distilled down,” with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart, that began a fruitful second run in 2005, after a fifteen-year hiatus.
Four encounters with Beirach (“our relationship is probably the closest I’ve ever had in my life,” Liebman says) figure prominently in a suite of just-issued or imminent additions to his voluminous discography. including an inspired Quest radio concert titled Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (Out Note), and Quest for Freedom (Sunnyside), in which Liebman and Beirach, supported by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, navigate a suite of Jim McNeely’s ingenious constructions. Also on Out Note are Unspoken, an 11-tune Liebman-Beirach recital that exemplifies their expansive harmonic simpatico, and Knowing-Lee, a melody-centric triologue with Lee Konitz.
Coltrane is the explicit subject of Compassion, a forthcoming RKM release of a high-energy 2007 BBC concert by Liebman and Lovano with the Saxophone Summit rhythm section, and of Liebman Plays Coltrane Blues (Daybreak), on which Liebman blows with a Flemish bassist and drummer. He’s the implicit subject of Relevance (Toucan), documenting two extended improvisations by lifelong Coltranephiles Liebman and Evan Parker, prodded by drummer Tony Bianco, and of Air [Finetunes], a solo saxophone-plus-effects recital that Liebman calls “my solo kind of out shit.”
Liebman, Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum achieve equilateral triangle interplay on We Three, still label-less, following their excellent 2006 session Three For All [Challenge]. On 2010’s Five In One [Pirouet], Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland, Drew Gress, and Billy Hart navigate repertoire by the members, while 2009’s Something Sentimental (KindofBlue) is a “B-flat” standards date with Liebman, Abercrombie, Nussbaum, and bassist Jay Anderson.
“I like the challenge of playing in different situations,” Liebman said. “Your musical DNA is what it is; how I hear harmonically and rhythmically will permeate the context. All my basic currents of development were on my first record, Lookout Farm, and my records are basically the same thing over and over. I also like a menu with a lot of different things. My wife once said, ‘It’s like you see music as a big picture show.’ That’s true. I conceive my sets as a voyage—up-down, left-right, thick-thin, dissonant-consonant, happy-sad. If a listener hears a funk tune, and then a beautiful tune with chord changes, and then a free energetic tune, they’re going to like one of them.
“I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label, and I travel, so I find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys something else. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of having too much product competing against your other product, which the labels hate. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people who are listeners will hear more music that you’re part of. If I can find a way to express myself and someone is interested, I’ll do it. If it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?”
Liebman describes himself as “pessimistic by nature,” and it is tempting to attribute the fatalistic, glass-half-full and half-empty assessments of his protean activity that are a frequent trope of his conversation to what the Flatbush native describes as his “Jewish shit.” In addition to such morphological signifiers as Liebman’s facial profile, and pattern baldness, not to mention his Brooklyn accent, there’s also the admixture of pedagogic rigor (he graduated from NYU in 1968 with a B.A. in American History, and cites 22 published works on his website) and the spiritual, pipeline-to-the-Creator intention that marks his most personal music.
That “Jewish shit” may also inflect Liebman’s ambivalence about Ornette Coleman’s compositions. “Ornette was nowhere near Trane or Sonny or Wayne as a saxophone player,” Liebman said. “Apart from his melodicism, his music never got to me emotionally. It’s so joie de vivre; even when he plays sad, it’s kind of happy and life-giving. For me, that’s not enough! Coltrane is the complete opposite. Even when he plays a major tune, there’s a sense of melancholy. It’s his sound.”
Liebman also projects identity through his soprano saxophone tone, which, without being too essentialist about it, often projects the keening, ululating quality of a shofer. “I love the tenor, and I’ll probably always play it to one extent or another, but in the end I’ve found my voice with the soprano,” he said. “It’s something about my Bedouin, Semitic desert roots. I don’t feel that on tenor. On tenor, it’s Trane, it’s Sonny, it’s Wayne. It’s jazz! The soprano is a world instrument for me. It’s a vocalist, a singer. It’s Miles. It’s Indian. It’s ethnic. It’s the On The Corner screeching shit. It’s got everything. It’s made my personality. Thank God I found it. The tenor would have been me hitting that nail I can’t get in the wall, because there were too many great people ahead of me. After Trane, there ain’t nothin’ else to play on that instrument.”
Ergonomic considerations also influence Liebman’s instrumental preference. “I’m not a big guy,” he said, adding that the weight of the tenor around his neck was “like towing a truck,” whereas the soprano “fits my physique better—it’s like my toothbrush; it feels like an extension of my arm.” In speaking of physical limitations, he inferred another source of his pessimism and also his constant determination to transcend it.
Stricken with polio at 3, Liebman walks with a pronounced limp. “Going to the doctor was like going to see Moses,” he said. “My mother kept taking me to the next guy who was going to fix my leg and get me out of this shit. It definitely gets in your way. I can’t run. I have trouble walking now. But it builds a character that otherwise you probably wouldn’t have. You’re not given a choice but to build an inner core of strength and compensate if you don’t want to die and crawl into the hole. That’s maybe where the extra shit comes from.”
It is Liebman’s opinion that Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, who both received considerable flak for hiring him during an era of deep black-on-white racial mistrust, took notice. “I can’t tell you that the leg didn’t have something to do with it,” he said. “Guys like that listened to the way you play, of course, but they also knew about character, and about lack of character, and I guess they thought, ‘He’s got what it’s supposed to be.’ I can’t tell you that everything was lovely with Miles. If you look at videos of Miles’ band on youtube, you see the Black Panther flag—the three stripes—on the equipment, and I’m there, the saxophone player…like, not that happy. But Miles was very clear about it. This was during the period when his legs were screwed up. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do. You carry three horns, nothing stops you.’
“Certainly, Elvin and Miles addressed everything they did with complete seriousness. Before and after the bandstand, everything could be completely out—and sometimes was. But when the horn is in your mouth, it’s the most important thing in the world. It is business. You owe it to the music, to the tradition, let alone your audience. And DO NOT fuck around, and do not treat it with anything less than total, 100 percent seriousness. Being in that culture helped me be who I am, and I’m very proud that I was able to do it. I had been sitting at Coltrane’s feet, and now I’m playing with his engine, and then with the guy who hired him and made him famous, and then hired Wayne Shorter. With the weight of the tradition and how good these guys were, how could you not be self-conscious and a little uptight? I wasn’t THAT good, man. I was ok, I guess, and I was like, ‘How can I be here?’”
Like many of his saxophonist contemporaries, Joe Lovano—who listened intently to Liebman and Steve Grossman on the 1972 Elvin Jones recording, Live at the Lighthouse—considered Liebman well beyond ok. “The energy and attitude that they played with was so strong and real,” Lovano said. “It felt like my generation. It was clear that here were two incredible, inspired players, and I had to reach for that level of energy and sound. After that, the way Dave channeled his ideas into that real electronic period of Miles’ music was amazing—he was the sound Miles needed at the time.”
Indeed, by the end of 1974, when he launched Lookout Farm with Beirach, bassist Frank Tusa, drummer Jeff Williams, and tabla player Badal Roy, Liebman was, as he puts it, “on the front line of the first younger post-Coltrane generation,” a highly influential figure. By 1980, he recalls, “I became cognizant that guys were copying me and Steve copying Trane. Elvin and Miles put us in the sun, and that’s how we played. We didn’t think about it. What else were we going to do?”
A few hours before hit time on his final day at Birdland with Kuhn, Swallow, and Drummond, Liebman sat on the balcony of a 21st floor suite in the midtown time-share building that he purchased several years ago in order to sustain a New York presence, and reflected on the implications of an early Baby Boomer joining the pantheon of NEA Jazz Masters.
“It’s significant in that I’m able to tour, but it’s also a personal thrill to be in the same company as my idols and mentors,” he said. “It’s the old adage that if you’re on line long enough, eventually your time comes to get whatever rewards there are. It’s interesting I’m getting the award with Wynton Marsalis, who embodies the opinion that the ‘70s was the time when we lost our way. Perhaps the Establishment is finally recognizing that the ‘70s wasn’t such a waste. It will always be called the Fusion Era, and rightfully so. But that shouldn’t be a black mark, because it was a great period.”
“To me, ‘fusion’ doesn’t mean a rock beat or an Indian drum. It’s a technical word which means to put together. The word ‘eclecticism,’ which also used to be a dirty word but is now completely kosher, definitely represents my generation; we had easy access to so many idioms and styles in the ‘60s, our teenage years, and our interests were spread very wide. We were of a type sociologically—mostly white guys, middle class (we didn’t have to do this), formally educated. And we had rock-and-roll—James Brown, Sly, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. Of course, all music is a fusion. But this was an acknowledged mixture of styles that seemed incompatible or unlikely. Before that, jazz was a blues, a standard, II-V-I, with more or less a common vocabulary that existed from Armstrong to Coltrane, played by musicians who came up in the same root. Now, of course, it’s commonplace to put together styles; everybody does this every day.”
As Liebman intends to do at full tilt for the foreseeable future. “I’m going to keep this energy going until the gas runs out,” he said. “In my case, it’s inevitable that I will not be walking so easily in ten years or so. I know it will not go on forever. I mean, Roy Haynes is unbelievable. Sonny, too. But they’re rarities. Most guys don’t. Maybe I will. But I don’t count on that.”
Dave Liebman Blindfold Test (Raw) — 2014:
The Cookers, “Believe, For It Is True” (Believe, Motema, 2012) (Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet (solo); David Weiss, trumpet; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; George Cables, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums)
First of all, it sounds like Billy on drums. It sounds like Jabali. I’ve been with him all week, and I recognize these rolls across the drums. An admirable job on keeping the rhythmical hits in place during the solo. From the standpoint of the tune, a long head, a little involved. Nice. It’s kind of a convoluted Lee Morgan type of head, with a “Maiden Voyage”-type harmonic thing going on in the background. Really nice. A little long for me, but… Then the fact that they keep the figure going so long… I would have abandoned it by now, or asked the rhythm section to go into something a little smoother. But the tenor played very well on it, got a really good bottom register, full-throated. That’s the kind of playing that’s like…I don’t know, what’s a good word… Full-throated. All out, all the time. The tune kind of demanded that, but I would have to hear this gentleman or lady, whoever it is, on another track to see. But it’s that kind of playing where it’s… I don’t want to say “double forte” all the time. It’s like that movie, Full Metal Jacket, like go the jugular right away. Not much nuance in that respect. But again, it could be the nature of the tune, but it also could be the style of this particular player. I think of somebody… Who’s like that? Azar is like that. Maybe Billy Harper to a certain extent. They just go for it all the time. I’m sure on the ballads, not quite the same. It’s a certain way of playing. But nice playing, and he played kind of in the changes and out of the changes, nice rhythmic ideas, and he played off of the vamp which was pretty tricky. So whoever that is gets definite support from me. I don’t think the trumpet player is Lee Morgan, but it’s got a vibe like those guys. Excellent player. Trumpet’s on another level. He’s up a level, the way he’s playing. But they keep that vamp going; I guess that’s the way the tune is. This is a good trumpet player. A very good track. I can’t tell what 5 stars is until I know what 3 is. Maybe I’ll go back later for judgments, because everything’s relative. But that’s a nice track. I definitely like it. [AFTER] So it’s Eddie Henderson. Oh, he sounds good. I worked with him in San Francisco, and always enjoyed his playing. He knows the tradition and he’s well-versed in everything. It’s nice to hear him. I had never heard the Cookers live. So that’s Cecil, too. That’s half of Saxophone Summit right there. I enjoyed it. I’d hope I get Billy Hart after 25 years, hearing him take a roll across the drums. 5 stars.
George Coleman-Richie Beirach, “Flamenco Sketches” (Convergence, Triloka, 1990) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Beirach, piano)
I think that’s Richie and George Coleman, their duo record. It’s in the recesses of my mind; it must be 20 years ago. Is that “Flamenco Sketches.” Of course, you have my main man there. Richie has a way of… At this tempo, in this mood, he’s one of the kings of establishing an ambiance, harmonically and rhythmically. This is one of his big strengths. George sounds so melodic and so great. He’s always great. I think George got much maligned by this whole thing with Miles, and that supposedly…again, this is myth, I don’t know…he was practicing too much in the room or something, and Tony told Miles, and Miles canned him for Wayne. I don’t know if this is all true. But George is a very melodic player, very good technician. He tends to play patterny sometimes, and let the fingers do the walking. I caution students… You’ll be hearing me say a lot of this, because the way I teach is a reflection of my aesthetic. I caution students not to have “fingeritis” and let the fingers do the walking before they’re really doing the talking, so to speak. George can sometimes be a little mechanical like that. And he’s a little sharp, a little out of tune here, but that’s part of playing in the upper register in the tenor sometimes. But he sounds great. He’s very melodic, and he’s great to hear with Richie. They had a short relationships. Of course, it was last year or the year before that George came down and sat in. I know he’s a little ill now, or not well, but he came backstage and I had a nice time talking to him, too. Total respect for him. He’s a complete master. And he has a certain sound that’s… Talk about different from Billy Harper. It’s almost the opposite. It’s light, airy, towards the high side. Probably not a very large mouthpiece, or if it is, it’s a small opening with a hard reed. He’s got a lot of agility, a lot of technique, and I think the mouthpiece enables him to do that. I would have to ask what his setup is. But he’s got a real smooth thing, a buttery, watery kind of thing, and he’s been consistently like that since the ‘60s, or since the time with Miles. Just to reiterate, Four and More is a classic for a variety of reasons, but George’s playing on it is masterful. I don’t know what happened, I don’t know why he didn’t stay, I don’t know what happened with being aced out of the band, but he was great with Miles. This is on the top. 5 stars. These guys know what they were doing. The way I look at things is, if what they do, they pull off, then they’re good at it. Whether it’s my taste or not is a separate story.
Branford Marsalis, “Pursuance/Psalm” (Footsteps Of Our Fathers, Marsalis Music, 2002) (Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)
I think that’s from the Bimhuis, live from Amsterdam. Oh, they did a video there maybe. I remember hearing this, or maybe I saw the video. So the video is different than this, a different performance. [Yes.] This is studio. Pretty good for studio, because they had a lot of energy. I mean, it’s a tour de force, no question about it. They all play full-throttle. I can’t tell the bass from the way we’re listening, but Joey and Branford, of course, and Tain—they’re killing. They’re burning it up, playing in the Trane thing, keeping almost the curve of Trane’s solo, except a little bit longer, maybe more like the Antibes version that Trane did after the original recording of Love Supreme. Having played with Joey and having enjoyed him over the years… He’s got impeccable time. He burns from getgo. Pretty much, that’s what he does. Branford, of course, has a lot of facets to his playing and he sounds good. It’s a great track. There’s nothing missing. They played great. They keep the time going; they keep the energy going.
One specific thing. When you’re playing in that, again, fast, fingers-type style, pentatonicky, chromaticky, and so forth, I still miss sometimes the sense of a melodic motif. I think two or three choruses he went up in the higher register, which is where you would most likely do the repeated note, maybe ornament that note, play a motif around that note, repeat it over the length of 2 or 3 choruses. He sort of did that. Playing at that tempo, with that kind of energy, is pretty hard to pull off, but it’s a real art to be able to be somehow melodic besides…what’s the word…harmonic. I don’t know what to say. I mean, he covers his bases, but I miss that little sense of sometimes a melody coming out of that. But you have to have real control to be able to do that, and you’ve got to do it every night, too. That notwithstanding, it’s a great track. They played their ass off. They played great on it. [Anything to say about playing this sort of repertoire?]
I remember when I first heard it… I’m not sure if I heard this version or the Bimhuis version, which is why I asked. I wasn’t that happy with it, and I thought it was a little…what’s the word…I don’t want to say disrespectful, but taking that on and doing it is a little ballsy. But that’s the way he is. But hearing this, either I didn’t hear it right or I’m hearing another version… But this is definitely on fire. I mean, they’re burning. You can’t contest that. And to do that in the studio at that tempo is difficult. That’s not easy, with headphones on and distance, you’re not on top of each other. To get that kind of power in the studio for that length of time is an accomplishment. I can tell you it’s hard to do that in studio. Live, you do it because you do it, and if it’s taped and it’s happening, fantastic. But I have a lot of admiration for what they did.
To my taste, Jeff Watts is a overplaying a little bit. He’s really drumming-out, and a lot of toms and flow stuff, and it’s great—and he’s great, of course. Maybe I’m stuck on Trane, that rhythm section. But the sense of fire, yes. Building, yes. Action, yes. But there has to be some leveling off to allow the stuff to breathe a little bit, and then you can rise. I call it plateau playing, where you go up, you level off; you go up, you level off. There’s a lot of curves in playing. The Miles Quintet was peaks and valleys, hills and mountains, and other groups go up, down, in the middle, whatever. But Trane’s thing, when they really burned on “Impressions” or something like this, there would be plateau. I miss that here in the sense not that the energy goes down, but there comes a chorus or two where it’s just time without a lot of action. It allows the ear to rest, it allows the listener to rest, and it allows the artist not to rest, but to re-collect and then yet go further. This just was on a path of upward trajectory, as upward as they could go for that long, and that’s not as interesting to me. That’s why I asked for the melodic thing that I discussed, or a leveling-off of the rhythm section to enable Branford maybe to be more melodic instead of having to kind of, I don’t want to say catch-up…to either catch-up or leave…but to keep that energy going… That sometimes is a liability, I think, to the artistic-ness of the project. To the playing, it’s great. Wow, look at the technique and the energy, and it’s astounding and all that shit—that’s definitely true. And I think maybe Tain playing the way he did is… But again, if it’s in the studio and he did, that’s amazing. They were definitely young cats hitting hard. That’s for sure. 5 stars. They played their ass off.
Anthony Braxton, “Composition 40 (O)” (Dortmund (Quartet) 1976, Hat Art, 1991) (Braxton, soprano saxophone, contrabass saxophone; George Lewis, trombone; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums)
If it’s not Anthony Braxton, I don’t know who it is. And that’s maybe George Lewis? Only because I don’t know who else… Steve Swell plays like that. These guys are masters of this shit. That head! It’s absurd, how much practice they must have done to get that head together. It reminds me of Lee and Warne 80 years later, how much Lee and Warne Marsh must have worked on their heads. This has to be similar. I mean, they’re amazingly together. Then the bass joins in. It’s unbelievable. And the rhythms, the choice of notes… From a saxophone standpoint, the articulation that Anthony is capable of, single-tonguing…it appears to be single-tonguing… I can’t speak that fast, let alone play that fast. I can’t say tatatatata as far as he was doing. Of course, he went from I guess soprano or sopranino, some weird thing, to that contra-contra, whatever the hell bass-something-or-other that he got. Then they go into the texture stuff, with the mutes, with the trombone, and then all the farting and shmooching and stuff that’s going on… These are guys are experts at sound sources, at colors, at wide intervals, difficult intervals, and odd rhythm…I don’t mean odd rhythm in the sense of the modern guys…I mean, odd, up-and-down, weird, amazing stuff.
I totally supported and was part of the decision to give Anthony the NEA. I was so glad that he was there. He did talk a lot at the ceremony… But he is a great guy, and definitely has made a contribution. There’s no question about it. Once we had a repartee at the Banff Institute when he was a guest, and he said to me, “Would you tell me how you play on ‘Impressions?’” Because I’m like post-Coltrane stuff and everything. So we had a little session. I usually play drums and then I talk about what you’re playing, etc., etc. Then he said, in that scholarly way, in the way he has of speaking, and the expression on his face was classic… He said: “You know, we had the same problem. The same challenge. We’re from the same generation.” I said, “What was that, Anthony?” He said, “John Coltrane. And we handled it in two very distinctly different ways. I went to Stockhausen and you went more inside it. Very curious. Very interesting.” I’ll never forget that, because it’s absolutely true. Being from that generation and having grown up in the ‘60s and heard Trane, seen Trane, tasted Trane, you had to deal with him if you played anything close to that instrument, let alone music, just like they had to deal with Charlie Parker. So that was very interesting.
One last thing is, once I remember he gave me a list of what he called “sound sources” on the saxophone, and 75 things from attacks to delays. Some I had no idea what he was talking about. But it goes to show his immersion in using the many woodwinds he plays in, let’s say, extra-musical ways—meaning as sound sources. Things that would not have been thought of. Now, of course, you’ve got to go back to the original avant-garde, the ‘60s, Archie and of course Albert, to find the sources of using the instrument in ways that were not orthodox. But Anthony definitely took it to another level, and he’s been doing it for 40 years. I give it to him. This is 5 stars because of the way they played, man. They played unbelievable. [Were you listening to this when it was happening?] No. I was aware of it, and I’m aware of him, but I can’t say… He’s very prolific. Like in my case, he does so much, you don’t know what years… But it’s live, too. It’s unbelievable. It’s live. [This is 1976.] That’s at the height of this stuff. That was the second-generation free guys. By the ‘70s, it had been distilled down to…the basic elements were already present by then. They were being experimented with from Cecil and Ornette on, and of course with Trane, late Trane and his inclusion of everybody on Ascension. But by the time we get to the ‘70s… The ‘80s is a different story. Then you have the next generation distilling it even further.
The other thing about this is that composition becomes equally prevalent to the improvisation. Which now is very much on the map. Oh, everybody writes long heads; boy, oh, boy, it’s composition. But this is 1976, and those guys are playing the heads that go on for 2-3-4 minutes, and it stays on track and sounds so TOGETHER, man! And it’s live. You would say it was edited. But it’s live. It’s unbelievable. I love it. Was that Dave Holland? Barry? Nice. [George and Dave Holland have said that Braxton would write 50 pages and present it at the soundcheck.] Well, they did their job. They could all read and play great. I really enjoyed the way they played, and where they went group-wise and how they went into different areas. Again, the color. Color as an element of music. Look, it starts from the first aboriginal guy. There’s a color. He’s hitting on the ground. But the use of color as a device for composition, let alone improvisation, is basically something that is a 20th century phenomenon. The color of an orchestra in the 1700s and 1800s, and Bach on an organ…yes, of course. But the use of color as color, like Varese and Stockhausen, just that…we’re going to go to that texture and use that… That’s what Anthony copped. He copped, “We can make color.” Just the mute in the trombone and the staccato in the soprano is a color, even beyond what they’re playing. It becomes the prevalent thing you hear. You’re not hearing harmony. You’re not hearing melody. You’re hearing rhythm to a certain degree, of course. Everything is rhythm, if it’s two notes. But you’re really hearing color as an absolute, on-the-map, top… Melody-harmony-rhythm, it’s a great triumvirate. Color, right up there. These guys know how to do that.
I’ll tell you one last story about Anthony. When Bob Moses and I tried to form a cooperative, because we felt it was time for us to get out of the lofts and play for people (this was 1970), we called a meeting of all the cats who had been hanging at my loft and his loft. Among them was Michael Brecker and Bob Berg…there were 30 guys sitting on the floor of my loft on 19th Street. Moses invited Anthony to come up and talk to us, and Leroy Jenkins—two different occasions. Leroy came at 7 o’clock, and Anthony came at 10 o’clock. Leroy was on the verge of racist. He was like, “You have to have grass roots and meaning…” I don’t know what the hell he came up there for, to basically say, “You can’t do it because you don’t have a raison d’etre. You don’t have no political…” Remember, this is ‘70, this is the height of the shit. Then Anthony comes up at 10 o’clock, peace-and-love, do-your-thing, go-for-it… I’ll never forget. He was so positive. We’re all 22 years old, basically trying to get our lives together and find a way to play in a very bad period of jazz, which was the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, as you know, before the fusion thing hits. Business is bad, and here we are playing that kind of stuff, or trying to. And Anthony is completely supportive. I’ll never forget that from him. We reminisced at the NEA about these things. I’m very glad he got the award.
Charles Lloyd, “Ruby My Dear” (Mirror, ECM, 2010) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums)
Charles Lloyd. One of my great influences, of course, because he was my teacher for a year, in 1966. I don’t know all his records. I know he has a million records on ECM. I can’t believe the piano is Bobo, because the piano playing is a little…not… I have some comments on the piano playing. That could be Anders Jormin, who is incredible. That would then be Billy. I’m not sure, because Charles had so many rhythm sections, and I’m not sure if it’s Jason Moran or Bobo or who the heck it is. But in any case, Charles, who I just saw last April, I believe, in Helsinki or somewhere in Finland, for the first time since 1966. I went down for dinner, and he was sitting there with his wife, and he said, “Dave?” We had a wonderful 2 hours together. The next night I went to hear him; sat on the side of the stage and went to hear him. We had a wonderful time together. It was great to see him. He’s in great shape. He looks the same basically, and he plays the same basically. That’s not necessarily a derogatory or a criticism. He plays the way he plays. He basically played the same way that he played in the ‘60s.
Of course, Charles’ thing is that water thing. I still have a little bit of that in my playing. There was a time when I really had a lot of it, because I was affected by him. His thing is, he took early Trane… We all took a different aspect of Trane and developed it. He took early Trane (kind of Benny Golson did also, but in a different way) those flurries and fast runs, and he put that kind of airy, almost Stan Getz sound to it. It’s like we do. When you try to find something that’s you, you see it coming from different angles and you mix it together in a bouillabaise that only you would mix because of your seasoning and your taste. So he’s got a Stan Getzish, light sound, a Paul Desmondy, even Warne Marshy sound on the tenor, with a kind of Trane sheets-of-soundy type thing. Not quite that deep, I wouldn’t give it that, but happening. Usually a little out of tune. That’s just the way he is. He’s got a Conn tenor that he still has, and it has a certain kind of distinct sound to it, a certain thing.
Charles got over, man… Besides that, he took a 20-year break or whatever he did. It’s incredible that he just came back and became a hit. I’m sometimes a little mystified, but I must say, he does evoke the hippie time. He evokes that spirit in his playing, when LSD was basically a nightly experience, and for that I give him a lot of credit. He is who he is, and look, he’s had obviously a successful life. He was a real estate mogul, from what I understand, on the West Coast, and the Beegees and Petrucciani and so forth—it’s all that. But just seeing him last year and hearing him, it was like memory lane for me, because he was obviously a big influence.
The reason I went to Charles Lloyd in 1966 was, Bob Moses, again, who was my first true friend who knew more than me, who knew the stuff… I said, “It’s time for me to go to somebody and get some lessons.” I was seeking in those lessons in those days, and nobody was teaching. “Who sounds the most like Trane?” I didn’t really have my history together at that time. He said, “Go see Charles Lloyd; he’s with Cannonball.” I went to the Half Note. He was dressed in a tie and suit. They were dressed so well. They were doing Fiddler on the Roof. I went up to him in the break at the Half Note. Where I’d been. Of course, I’d seen Trane, so I knew the scene there. I said, “Hello, Mr. Lloyd, do you teach?” He said, “No.” Then he looked at me over those spectacles, he looked at me deeply, and he said, “But you can come over tomorrow; here’s where I live.” Actually, it was across the street from Blue Note, above the firehouse.
I spent the next year, literally, almost every, if not every Sunday from noon til 8, if not later, with him, in his bed watching the Giants or the Yankees, probably smoking a joint or whatever, more…I don’t remember. But I was around a true jazz musician. He taught me very little. He didn’t really teach. He had some comments, which is another discussion. But just being around the real deal… He was just about the cover… I remember I walked in one day, he said, “Look, I’m on the cover of ‘Deadbeat.’” (As we do this interview.) He had a sardonic kind of humor. He was a very interesting guy. And he was an intellectual, really. He was a teacher. You could see he was another kind of level. And he figured the hippie thing out, and the good-looking suits and everything, and of course, he stole Miles’… Not stole. But he would start everybody, and Miles would take them. Because Charles was fashionable. He was on the scene. He was kind of a fashion-plate. He was playing that Forest Flower thing. This is before anybody knew who Keith and Jack were, and of course (here we go), Ron McClure, my bass player this week, playing with Charles.
I went to him and I spent that year with him, and the highlight was when he asked me to take Keith, Cecil and Jack to the Newport Festival. Because I had a car, in those days of bigger cars. He said, “would you drive my guys up there?” I said, “All right.” I picked them all up in the morning, different parts of Manhattan, drove for 6 hours, got to Newport, there was a line of cars. They got out and walked. They didn’t know me. I had my girlfriend with me; they didn’t owe me anything. But I remember hearing them, and then seeing Trane, which now just finally got release, live at Newport in ‘66… Seeing him in the afternoon.
So I was like his go-fer. He played a lot at Slugs. He had Tony Williams in the band. He had Gabor, of course. Sometimes he had Herbie. He had Ron Carter. He had Albert Stinson. He was the kind of hot cat on the scene in the mid ‘60s in New York, and I was attached to him. He was my idol. It was great to see him again.
This particular “Ruby” is a little drawn out. The piano player, I don’t know, it’s kind of a reharm but not really, and it’s the chords… I get a little disturbed as the piano solo is progressing, and then Charles comes in and he’s kind of floating. I’m not sure the performance is the greatest one. I don’t know if it’s live or in the studio. But Charles has that kind of casual manner about him that sometimes can be a little disconcerting, I think, musically. I must say, when I saw him and he went into a spiritual rap, he had a whole 10-minute rap, I just went and said, “Boy, it’s 1966 again, man; it’s unbelievable.” We all represent something, because we’re all part of history. But that’s his little slice. But I love the guy; he’s a great guy. 4 stars. Maybe 3.
Evan Parker-Matthew Shipp, “Rex 2” (Rex, Wrecks & XXX, RogueArt, 2011) (Parker, tenor saxophone; Shipp, piano)
That could probably keep going. I have no idea how long that will go on. One thing about these guys (same with Anthony), they’ve got stamina. I’ll tell you that! They stay on course, and they will stay there, and I bet they can go on for another three hours. Very nice little conversation between the piano and the saxophone. I have no idea who it is. It sounds like it was done in their home or living room. It sounds like they were feeling no pain. The piano player is excellent. I like him. A lot of ideas. The saxophone player was pretty quick at picking things up when he was thrown a bone by the piano player, meaning the piano player would do something and leave a space, and give the saxophone player a chance to respond.
This kind of duet conversing, again coming out of…again, back to the avant-garde… It’s interesting up to a point, and then it loses… I don’t know. It sounds like guys just playing. If you’re in that mood, that’s the kind of thing, you go right in the zone. It’s like Cecil stuff, and you go right in there and stay there. Bukt there’s no up-and-down, there’s no curve. It’s just, again, one unidynamic…it’s mono-dynamic… It stays the same. It gets little busier and less busy; as they go on, probably more busy. Maybe by the end, they get less busy because they’re ending the tune or whatever they feel like is enough. But playing like this (which I’ve done quite a bit of, of course) is very good for your playing, because you do things you wouldn’t normally do if you’re playing in a more contained environment. On the other hand, it’s music for musicians only, basically, and people who are in that zone, and if you’re in that zone you probably had a great smoke or something, because this will definitely help that ride. [LAUGHS]
But it’s a great way to play to really get the kinks out of your horn, in a way. I like doing this, because you wouldn’t play that way in another situation. Initially I thought it was Archie Shepp, and then I thought it might be David Ware. It’s one of those kind of tenor players. I don’t think it’s a young guy. I think it’s someone who’s been doing this for a long time. It could be one of the Chicago guys, Roscoe… I can’t name who it is stylistically. If it was Archie, he would been in the upper register a little more, he would have done those kind of things he does with sound. He has a very particular style. He sounds like himself. And David Ware, when I saw him, he did, too. But I was premature in thinking it was Archie, because he has a tone and sound you’ll know pretty quickly. As far as this guy goes, I won’t say it’s generic. I don’t want to be derogatory or condescending. But it’s another free tenor player from, I would imagine, that era. If it’s a young guy, one of these cats like an Ivo Perelman or somebody that I don’t really know their style. Who is it? [AFTER] Oh, it’s Evan. I don’t know Evan on tenor that well. The piano is Matthew Shipp. I enjoyed him. I just did notes for Ivo and Matthew last year, that Ivo asked me to write. I’ve seen Matthew play, and as I said, he’s excellent. I always identify Evan more on soprano. He’s like revolutionary on soprano. He’s very good on tenor. I don’t know enough about it to know the distinct style… We did a live recording at the Vortex in London with a drummer. I don’t know if he played tenor. Maybe he did, and I don’t remember. [Why is he revolutionary on soprano?] He really set the ground for an avant-gardy type thing. Another guy is John Butcher, who is unbelievable. But I recently heard this guy, Michel Donato. Send me your address, and I’ll make a copy of this. Somebody came up to me in New Haven a few months ago. He was a producer; I don’t know his name. He said, “there’s a soprano player from Europe; maybe you don’t know him, but I’m soliciting remarks from soprano players; would you listen and give me a statement?” I never heard a cat play the horn like this. It’s WAY out there. As I’m doing research, in fact… Dalachinsky came last night, and he’s going to find his contact. I want to contact this guy and just say how much I enjoyed him. He lives in south of France. He’s like our age. He’s made a million records. He’s completely underground. But Evan has made a great contribution on soprano. But I must say these other guys are hot on his tail.
[Isn’t he coming out of Coltrane also?] In his own way, he is. But Archie did and Pharaoh did and Albert… I put them all in one place. They all extended the way the tenor was played in the ‘60s, coming from Coltrane or leading to Coltrane, or Coltrane followed him. I think Coltrane had his ears open and he was listening to them. I think Albert was a big influence on Coltrane. I think it would be, like, “I need to use some of that in my playing.” I would imagine. Of course, Coltrane also had that he could play “Giant Steps,” which separated him from the pack. When you heard Coltrane play late Coltrane, it still made incredible sense. I mean, it made harmonic sense. He didn’t just go… I can’t say this makes harmonic sense. This is about texture. We’re back to color for color sake. And here, rhythm. Absolutely, because of Matthew. Because remember, piano is a percussion instrument. When you play it this way, you’re being true to its percussive nature. Is Bill Evans a percussive player? Not really. I mean, you could call it playing cymbals if you want. But this is really using piano that way, which has been in front of everybody since the invention of the piano. And these guys, coming from Cecil. Cecil is responsible. Unless he might have heard some guy do it that we don’t know about. But Cecil made it a percussion instrument, almost to the extent that it’s not anything else. There’s no real melody, there’s no real harmony; it’s texture and it’s rhythm. For that, I give them 5 stars for what they do, because that is what these guys do. They do it well, too.
Pharoah Sanders, “Crescent” (Crescent With Love, Venus/Evidence, 1994) (Sanders, tenor saxophone; William Henderson, piano; Charles Fambrough, bass; Sherman Ferguson, drums)
You can’t have Dave “happy man” all the time. You’ve got to have “Dave dark.” So far I’ve been very positive.
Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Orbits” (Without A Net, Blue Note, 2013) (Shorter, soprano saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)
That’s Wayne, of course, live. The thing that’s great about it is the interaction. They’re a live group that’s now ten-years-plus old, that a whole generation can see, that’s successful, playing the big gigs, that’s really improvising. That’s my bottom line for this group. They really improvise. Wayne sounds fantastic on soprano. The runs are great. The high notes are fantastic. He sounds a little more exuberant than he sometimes does. It’s a good take in that respect. There can be a tendency in this group for overplaying. Possibly, maybe the up-and-down-ness of Brian’s playing can be sometimes a little disconcerting, and Danilo can get a little caught in banging on the piano a little bit. But it’s the nature of the rhythmic thing that they do. Part of my aesthetic as we talked about before, and we said it with “Pursuance,” I like the leveling-off not because of looking to die down, but because contrast is so important to me, and that the story line keeps the tension-and-release going. It doesn’t just stay in tension, or, equally, in release. I miss that sometimes with this group. I mean, they can do it, and then they go from very soft sometimes, very quiescent, to burning right away. There’s not a lot of middle ground with this group. They don’t cover that live at least. Of course, writing-wise, Wayne… My bottom line on Wayne is always this. Wayne is an example (and there aren’t many in jazz; Horace was, Monk was—piano is a little easier) of composer as improviser. Most of us are improviser-composers. We take “Donna Lee” because we would have played what we wrote. “Impressions” is what we would have played. But Wayne writes, and then plays from the writing, and he keeps a compositional context to whatever he does. Not particularly on this particular track, but in general he thinks of space, thinks of tension-and-release, and really has it together. I just recorded two weeks ago, with my big band, Wayne Shorter, ten tunes from the ‘60s. A Swedish arranger. It’s going to come out on that same label I did my last one—Summit Records. Of course, this is “Infant Eyes” and “Nefertiti” and “Speak, No Evil,” “Iris,” all the stuff from the ‘60s—all those great tunes. Of course, those tunes are pristine, because they are so clearly what they are of what I’m talking about—his up-and-down, his tension-and-release, his choice of chords, his melodies. He was a guy who was an architect and then improvised. That’s not the normal thing in jazz. Again, Monk is also a great example of that, where you have a structure and a compositional view that is so ensconced that, when you improvise, you sound like you’re writing. That’s not true in much jazz, and for me, Wayne is the most important writer of the last 50 years, because he contributed that. Plus, harmonically (with Herbie, of course), he suggested chords that in the ‘60s were not being played in the ‘60s to improvise over, and made us, my generation, have to really reexamine how we improvise on chord changes. What we were used to was the II-V cycle and Bird and Bebop—basically Blakey and the whole thing like that. Here comes a guy with different chord qualities and places that modulated, that made you not able to use your cliched shit. Even though you would see the bar, you’d see a II-V, his II-V was going somewhere distant. You couldn’t go in with your little thing you’d learned from so-and-so and put it into that context. It didn’t sound right. You couldn’t play it. You had to play more horizontal. In that respect, Wayne is very Lester Young-oriented, because he really brought horizontal in, whereas Trane is much more vertical, more up-and-down. Coleman Hawkins and Prez is the same dichotomy, and basically you’re either one or the other. Basically. But that group…that’s 5 stars, of course. They’re improvising, man! They’re without a net! Well-put. Good title.
One last thing is that at the beginning, he plays something… I thought it was an avant-garde guy again. I was going to say to you, “Well, Ted, it looks like we’re in that direction today.” Because the beginning was really some free, crazy shit. I thought, “oh, here we go with another one of these tracks. I’ll have to see who this is. Is this Lol Coxhill or one of those guys?” Then they start, and it’s Wayne, and I didn’t know it. I forgot that little intro. That intro was the seed of something they don’t do that much. Am I right? That little free intro. The way he’s playing, they’re playing very, very free. So that particular episode in the beginning made me think of… That introduction…I would like to hear Wayne do more of that, because that’s definitely different than his usual m.o.
Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, “South Side” (Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, YAL, 19920 (Lateef and Freeman, tenor saxophones; John Young, piano; John Whitfield, bass; Terry Morrisette, drums)
I have no idea. It could be old cats trying to play like new cats. It could be some neo guys. I don’t know. A lot of patterns. Nothing that interesting to me. Both of them had this old sound vibrato at the end of the note that makes you think they definitely listened to or are older cats. It’s like older cats trying to play avant-garde, in a way, trying to be… They have language and they’re playing, but it’s kind of misplaced in a way. The time is kind of scattered. And the sound…it sounds like they’re shaking a lot. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s that way of playing saxophone where your embouchure is just so loose that everything is kind of shaking. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a particular way of playing… Again, I couldn’t tell if these are avant-garde guys playing inside or inside guys playing avant-garde, or old cats with young cats (the drums and piano, not much happening). It’s a blues with a bridge. The way they handled the bridge was a little more modal. It shows that they weren’t really, to me, that adept at that kind of playing, which places it as a little bit older style. In other words, guys playing on modal things who come from the bebop period, you can usually tell they’re not like the… It’s like me playing on “Donna Lee” rather than playing on “Impressions.” That’s not my strength. I do it, but it’s not my strength. This is like the reverse of that. I always tell a story of when I was with Elvin. When Joe Farrell left, and before Steve Grossman came in the band, it was either Clifford Jordan, Frank Foster or George Coleman. Elvin liked two saxophones. It was interesting to hear these guys play when we did modal material. Because some of Elvin’s material was A-minor—go. They would try to play like a II-V-I progression, and it was, like, misplaced. This made me really see that what era you come from, in a way, is one of the biggest determinants, at least in this music, of your modus operandi. You can’t deny that. You may change and evolve. But you come, like Charles does, like Branford does, like I do…you come from that period, and that period is, like, they see D-minor-VII, that’s going to G-VII, brother. They don’t see D-minor-VII lasting them 16 bars, like “So What.” That’s why “So What” was such a revolutionary thing, because they didn’t have cadences. They had only that one chord, that one scale. In any case, I’m not sure who these guys are or what they were doing. But it was a little strange. It sounded like a jam session or some festival they put together, cats at the end to play together, like one of these Bruckner House type things in Europe. [AFTER] Von is the first guy? [Second guy. Yusef was the first.] Von always had some little experimental stuff in him. But Von… Now, you’re not allowed to talk like, but there’s a lot of finger stuff going on. Patterny. A little bit “Giant Step-y” there, the II-V-I, like a mini-scale… The things we all learn as saxophone players. We’re so guilty of this “fingeritis.” We’re all guilty of it. Because the saxophone is a pretty easy instrument to move your fingers. And you do. If you can, you do. That’s Yusef? I don’t know. I’m a little puzzled. I can’t tell you that I heard Yusef much in the past 20-30 years. I just know all the recordings, the oboe, the flute, of course when he was with Cannonball. He was a really solid player and a great blues influence. This to me, sounds a little hackneyed and a little bit…not staged… As I said, they’re like old cats playing modern. Or trying to play modern. Though the piano player was not really modern. It suggested to me guys trying to stretch out with the language that they learned basically from Coltrane. But their sound is a giveaway that they’re older, unless it’s some young cat playing like that. Which is possible. That’s the neo shit. But in this case, it sounded like older cats playing modern, or trying to play modern, which is admirable and all that. But when you hear somebody like Wayne Shorter, it kind of puts the rest to dust, in a way. Because he’s 81 years old. He’s not supposed to play modern. You know what I mean? He’s one of the most modern players of all time still. That means it can be done. By some. That’s the point.
Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987/1997) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)
I don’t know who it is. But it’s so Ornette-ed out, it’s amazing. Even to the sense of the trumpet missing notes like Don would. It’s to the tee. Of course, the tenor is a little Dewey-ish, of course (Dewey Redman). But what’s missing is a real personality from the tenor player. I didn’t feel any up-and-down, not much use of nuances, and, in a certain way, the solo was kind of flat to me. It went just like in a straight line. It didn’t go anywhere. It could be the rhythm section, which sounded a little dead. It could be the mix; I’m not getting the drums that good sound-wise. But I didn’t hear much. The bassist was doing his job. It’s an Ornette type thing. But the thing about Ornette that you have to always understand, it’s just like with Trane… If you’re going to do classic stuff, you’ve got to get somehow to the spirit and then make it yours. In this, the spirit of Ornette is buoyancy. Not uplifting; I’m not going to go spiritual. It’s uplifting… A revival meeting. It’s Texas, man! It’s just up. Even when he plays “Lonely Woman,” it’s up. The guys evokes a period. Like, Lovano plays good like that, because Lovano has that in him. It’s a certain thing it’s a joie de vivre that you hear in the cat’s playing that I don’t hear in this saxophone playing. So therefore, playing that style, which I can’t help but say it’s going to ignite a certain thing in me, because stylistically, I’m sorry, it sounds like Ornette. So you’re gonna go there? Well, ok. Then we need something of that spirit. Or we completely transform it. Do it completely different, which they didn’t. Which is absolutely valid. But to take something and play in the style of, and not get somewhere near the spirit of the original or something akin to it, to me is… I don’t know why you even do it. [AFTER] It was Ornette? On tenor? Don’t like it. Sorry. I’m completely wrong. Is that when they came back and played again? Old Dreams. He didn’t sound comfortable on the tenor. I’ve got to tell. Certainly nowhere near the alto. I’m sorry. It’s not Ornette. The sound is a little dull. I don’t get it, even with that. That’s Blackwell? Billy Higgins? But it’s the nuance. I don’t want to say he’s not familiar with the instrument, but it’s not his voice—now that you tell me it’s Ornette. But even without saying it’s Ornette, I don’t feel that the tenor was the player’s voice. Maybe you should play another instrument. It’s not coming across. Well, I’m completely wrong, and I will go down in history for accusing Ornette of not being Ornette. I’m embarrassed, because I said, “how could it be Ornette?” and it fucking ends up being the motherfucker. I’m sorry, but in any case, you get my point. I just don’t get it. This is when they… [They reunited for a tour, and they recorded this and they recorded Prime Time.] I must say on the side here… Maybe Quest is guilty of this, too. But this getting-together-again thing presents a bag of problems that are insurmountable. It’s based on history. It’s just not 1975 any more, or 1965, or 1985. [Or 1960, for that matter.] Well, in this case. It’s great to see the cats together. It’s great to evoke the memory of the great period in history. Usually, these little reunion things fall a little flat. I try with Quest. We play once a year, so it’s no big deal. I’m on it with Richie, and we’re very vigilant to try not to…we play the same material, but to try to be in present time. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m not sure we’re successful at it. That would be the listener’s judgment. But when you do come together, you have the danger of it’s not what it was because it is not what it is. It’s just history. We’re older. Older is not the point. We’re just different. It’s a different time. Tomorrow is different. But this is REALLY different. 40 years’ different. Sometimes… I can’t tell about when the Modern Jazz Quartet got together, or VSOP because they had Freddie instead of Miles. Some of that was great. But somehow… I guess it’s also in the ears of the beholder. You remember when it was fresh and really happening, and then you go, “Well, it’s not that.” So maybe it’s a little prejudiced because you were so hooked on it, and now they come back and they go, “Well, it’s not as good.” [He did write new music for this project. On the record, both the quartet and Prime Time play the same tunes, so the context is quite fresh.] I liked it. In fact, when I came on, I thought this is an attractive thing, that Ornetteish thing he does so well, which is great melodies, man. He’s the melody-maker of of all time! He will go down in history as the greatest melodic player-composer in the history…maybe in music. You want a little 6-bar melody? Nobody does it better. Triadic, memorable, you can sing it, you walk away remembering it. Forget about the improvising and the rhythm and what they do, the way they mix it up. His melodies stay in your head. That’s what makes Ornette, Ornette. And he plays like that, when he plays. But I’m used to the alto, and the tenor sounded kind of flat. [Did you hear Ornette on Tenor when it came out in the ‘60s?] Yes, and I liked it. It’s a great record. I think it had a lot of life to it. And it sounded like alto. This didn’t sound like alto to me. I did a record with Lee and Richie. The third track, “Universal Mind,” soprano, I never heard anybody play another instrument and sound more like his main instrument. I mean, the soprano sounds like an alto. That was the case on Ornette On Tenor, I believe. But not on this particular track for me.
Sonny Rollins, “More Than You Know” (Road Tales: Volume 1, EmArcy-Doxy, 2008) (Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Bobby Broom, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion)
That sounds like an older cat who’s got a real personality. That’s a personality. That’s the thing about saxophone, man. They’re so individual. You get 50 guys and 50 different ways of playing. It’s amazing. We’ve heard a lot of them today. It’s a little similar to the one with Yusef and Von. An older cat, it would appear, coming a little bit out of the Ben and Coleman Hawkins thing with that sound, full-blast all the time, like that first thing you did with the Cookers, Billy Harper… It’s full-throttle, even on a ballad. Tenor. Deep. But he plays all over the horn. And he’s got some good lines. He plays very well. The guitar player, when he double-timed, was really great. It was very accurate and really good going. Bass and drums sounded a little sleepy. But again, it’s a ballad and it sounds like it’s late at night. It sounds like it’s the last set. But the tenor player will not give it up. He’s going straight for it. He’s going to put his shit on the table, and he’s very forthright about it. Again, not… Much of today, many of the guys… One general comment I’ve been making (Wayne is one of the few we’ve heard who breaks the rules) is of nuances, and of personal expression that makes the conversation alive. It’s like speaking. You don’t speak in the same tone of voice. You do accents and dynamics. You talk. You speak. It’s speaking. Sometimes guys just blow. Blowing is one thing. Speaking is another thing. Coming out of the voice and coming out of the way you would talk, let alone if you would sing. Then this guy, he’s just going straight through. He’s got that one sound, and he’s going to keep doing it, and it’s very predictable. To me, it takes away a little bit of magic when things are so predictable, that you know he’s going to play in a certain way. Your ear says, “oh, I’m used to that…oh, ok, that.” That shuts off part of the mystery. I like hear to somebody with more nuance. It’s like the way Herbie plays piano. Nuances on an instrument. This guy was pretty straightforward. I don’t have any idea who that its. [AFTER]
As far as I’m concerned, ‘60s Sonny, everything from Alfie to live at Ronnie Scott’s, to the live with Alan Dawson… From ‘60-‘61 to ‘67-‘68, nobody has ever played the saxophone like that. It’s even beyond Coltrane as far as the saxophone playing goes—what he does. Of course, the material is standards, so no problem. That’s a little bit what it is. But the way he plays it is great. He just never had a rhythm section, except Our Man In Jazz and Herbie with Standard Sonny Rollins, that would enable him to have more to say. What’s the point of a rhythm section for a saxophone player, for a horn player? In general, my feeling is, a guy of that amazing talent and vocabulary, if he would play with good guys on a steady level, guys that he lets them go, his game would have been raised. But Tristano was the same way. He didn’t want the bass and drums doing anything but keeping time and pulse. Dexter did it. Sonny. Stan Getz… Talk to Billy. Stan Getz had the best drummers in the world and he would handcuff them, because “it’s my show; I’m the soloist, you support me.” Dexter never said anything, but you played straight behind Dexter. You just did the job. That was that era. Those guys did the job. That’s a given, that they’re going to swing. We know they’re not going to get lost in the blues. But there’s more to it than that. That’s not enough, not by 1965-1970. Miles made that very clear. When Miles got the quintet… Even with Philly Joe, he was already doing shit, with Philly and Red doing those kicks and stuff like that. Miles was smart enough to realize, “I am more if the rhythm section is doing stuff. I sound better. I can rely on them. I can leave a space, and something beautiful and amazing and creative is going to happen, and give me something to do.” Instead of me being responsible. I always say, “Are you such a genius that you can carry 20 choruses in a row and come up with good shit? I’m not that good. Are you that good? Don’t you want some help from your friends? Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”
But since you played Wayne, there’s a guy who, everything I’m talking about, he does, in his playing. I’m not talking about the group. I’m not talking about the compositions. In his own playing, there’s nuance, there’s stop-and-go, there’s ideas, there’s color and texture and harmony and melody. He covers the gamut. And a lot of the guys I heard today don’t cover the gamut. That’s all. They’re individualists, they have a particular thing they say, and on that level it’s absolutely valid and they’re all 5 stars. Everybody is 5 stars, because they are who they are. But as far as variety of using the language in a wide scope, I didn’t hear too much of that today.
In Conversation with Dave Liebman (www.jazz.com):
In September 2006, Dave Liebman, the saxophonist-educator, celebrated his sixtieth birthday musician-style, with a four-night residency at Manhattan’s Birdland, intending to represent, as Liebman put it, “a wide spectrum from among the things I’ve enjoyed doing over the last ten years.” Towards this end, Liebman presented a different band each night, all but one of them documented by a contemporaneous recording, and each navigating a distinct sonic environment.
Night one featured a to-the-outer-partials two-tenor quartet with Ellery Eskelin, a Liebman student during the ‘80s (Renewal, Different But the Same [Hatology]), while on night two, Liebman led his working quartet of the past decade with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Marko Marcinko (Blues All Ways [Omnitone] and Further Conversations–Live [True Azul]). On night three, Liebman presented his big band music, and on night four he performed the music of Miles Davis, his one-time employer, and John Coltrane, his seminal inspiration, with an all-star sextet comprising trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
Although the program provided a consequential snapshot of Liebman’s intense activity as he approached his seventh decade, it only captured a fragment of his total musical production. To wit, during the months preceding the festivities, his itinerary included duo concerts with Markowitz and pianist Marc Copland; trios with Nussbaum and electric bassist Steve Swallow (Three For All) [Challenge], a week at Yoshi’s in Oakland with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis; a week at Manhattan’s Blue Note with McCoy Tyner. There were also European tours with a quartet from the Continent (Roberto Tarenzi, Pablo Bendettin, Tony Arco—Dream of Nite, Negative Space [Verve]); with the collective all-star quartet Quest, with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart (Redemption, Quest Live in Europe [Hat Hut]), recently reconvened after a two-decade hiatus; and with Saxophone Summit (Seraphic Light [Telarc]), a Liebman-organized unit in which he, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane—who replaced Michael Brecker after Brecker contracted his fatal illness—played music composed by or vibrationally akin to the spirit of John Coltrane.
Which meant that Liebman, as articulate with the English language as the language of notes and tones, had much to speak of while visiting WKCR to publicize his birthday run.
Am I mistaken that you’ve been emphasizing tenor saxophone more in the last few years than you had in years previous?
DL: Yes. It’s back in the arsenal since 1996, after a fifteen-year hiatus.
What was the reason for that hiatus?
DL: To get really good on one instrument rather than be ok on a few. The soprano was the choice for a few reasons. One was that I felt a little bit closer to it as far as individuality. Also in 1980, as far as the water-under-the-bridge aspect of how many people had left a voice on the instrument, there weren’t that many at the time—now it’s a little more crowded. Those two reasons made me think that it was time to put down the flute and the tenor, and concentrate on the soprano, and get it to a higher level. It took me 10-15 years to get it up to wherever it is now. It’s a hard one. But just when I was approaching 50, I decided it was time to bring back the father horn and own up to it, and to try to find a way to play it that made sense to me. I felt that I didn’t want to go so much into the Coltrane thing, all my roots that I had played so much, and to find another way of playing it.
Someone remarked that your approach to tenor saxophone is almost like an electric guitar, to which you responded that if you hadn’t heard Coltrane at 15, you might indeed have played electric guitar.
DL: I might have, yes, because of the expressive possibilities. Of course, I loved Jimi Hendrix. Those were all around the same time. But sometimes I hear… Especially on soprano, sometimes I think like that, even moreso than the tenor, because of its lightness and speed. But the way I play both instruments is marked with a certain kind of intensity, and there’s an immediacy that may be reminiscent of the way electric guitar is played.
Hearing Coltrane when you were 15 would place you in 1961, when he signed with Impulse and was starting to elaborate and extend his concept. Can you describe that first hearing?
DL: That first hearing was Birdland, and it was the second or third time I’d gone there. I’d gone with some of the older people in my school. I went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn.
Sandy Koufax’s alma mater.
DL: Yes, and Larry King.
Joe Torre and John Franco. Bensonhurst.
DL: Well, first of all, six thousand people in the school, and my class, being 1946, was 2500 people. It was quite a large school. Anyway, I went to Birdland, and I didn’t know really who Coltrane was. It was the Bill Evans Trio opposite. Coltrane was with Eric Dolphy, as it ended up, and they played “My Favorite Things,” which I couldn’t believe. I said, “How can they play a song from The Sound of Music’? This is not possible.” In any case, I was compelled to go back every time I could, dozens of times until his death. That’s the main experience of my life, really. Outside of anything personal or family oriented that has happened to me, to see that group live was the big event. It was beyond words, the way they communicated, the way they played, their attitude, the atmosphere, the way it sounded. I was a teenager just starting to fool around a little bit, but I had no idea of the depth of this music, or what it could be—or what MUSIC could be, let’s put it that way. Nothing had ever gotten to me like that at that point. It made me see that there’s something in this music that I didn’t know.
You were playing saxophone by that point?
DL: Yeah, I was playing piano and clarinet.
So you had the music bug.
DL: I liked music, and I was trying to play jazz and pop and so forth. The first music I loved was rock-and-roll, ‘50s rock. I was an Elvis Presley freak. I loved the tenor in rock-and-roll, which is how I got to the tenor. I took music lessons like a high school student does—you’re in the dance band, you do shows, it’s an activity. I enjoyed it. But when I saw Coltrane, and then subsequently Miles…all the different people… I would go see jazz every weekend, and they made me see this as a very serious thing. Of course, in my case, getting a chance to play with Elvin and Miles eventually opened the door, and then, of course, it went to another level. But I had no idea of that in my teenage years—just that it was very, very strong music.
When did you start to get involved in the New York scene? There was a group of people about your age, a little older, a little younger, who started a loft movement before loft jazz, in ‘67, ‘68. How did those attachments start to form?
DL: [Drummer] Bob Moses was my very close friend when I was 16. In fact, we went to the Catskills and played a hotel there. I actually ambushed him for a gig. We played merengues and such. I was in the lofts already at 16 years old, trying to play. That part of whatever the scene was… The amount of musicians in New York was very small. There were dozens, maybe, as compared to hundreds. So you kind of knew everybody. Say, you could see Hank Mobley, and he might know you because he knew your face, because you’d been around and you were hanging. It was a small community. It was easy to go into a club, you had a beer, you sat at the bar, and you could go night after night. By the time I got to college age, and was on my own at NYU in Greenwich Village, I was there a lot. We had quite a scene, a loft scene back in ‘69-‘70…
You moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
DL: Yeah. When I was done from high school.
In those days, that was a big move.
DL: You were going to another country. But of course, I had been familiar with Manhattan, and I had been playing already—club dates, but also trying to play jazz as much as a young person could in those days. Looking for jazz on Bleecker Street with my horn. Seriously going out in the street and thinking there were sessions in the middle of the street! This was what I thought. But we actually organized in the late ‘60s. We put together an organization called Free Life Communication, which I was the head of, and Moses and Chick Corea and Holland, Mike and Randy Brecker, Lenny White, a lot of guys. We put on about 300 or 400 concerts in the first year. We saw that this was a thing we had to do on our own, because jazz actually was pretty low-down in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as far as places to play and opportunities. So we decided to take matters into our own hands, and got funding from the New York State Council of the Arts, and so forth. So there was some organization and some activity, but we were basically playing free jazz. The avant-garde movement was very strong in New York in the late ‘60s, and that was all that young cats like me wanted to play. Our model was Ascension. We never even played a tune or a blues or anything straight-ahead.
So were you also involved in listening to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp…
DL: This was our favorite stuff. That’s what you saw. You’d be on the Lower East Side, and that’s what was happening. It was the current thing, and it seemed to be exciting, and it seemed to be something that you could do—get up and just start playing, basically. There were no schools then. Remember, there was no formal schooling. Some guys went to Berklee, but I didn’t, and we didn’t learn in any kind of formal way. We all learned from each other, from watching and listening and hearing and asking questions, and just hanging out.
Was it 1970 that you joined Elvin Jones?
DL: I was with Elvin in ‘71-‘72, and then ‘73-‘74 with Miles.
Seminal relationships, obviously, and very exciting. How did it happen?
DL: Gene Perla was the bassist with Elvin, and he got the gig in late ‘70 or early ‘71. He was part of our community. That was a big thing for us, because we saw one of our own, so to speak, getting with a heavyweight—a real heavyweight. He said, “I’m going to get you in the band and then I’m going to get Steve Grossman in the band—I’m telling you now.” Sure enough, slowly, Joe Farrell, who’d been with Elvin for those years, the late ‘60s, eventually was leaving, and I took his place, and then within 4-5 months Steve was in the band. That was the unit that recorded Live at the Lighthouse and so forth. It went on for that two-year period. We had a wonderful time. First it was the quartet, and Don Alias was with us for about a year with the congas.
How had Elvin Jones’ playing evolved from the time he stopped playing with Coltrane until then?
DL: I’ll be honest with you. Of course, having seen it so many times and knowing Elvin’s playing intimately, I was hoping and expecting and thinking that it would be like Coltrane. Of course, the one big thing that was missing is that I’m not Coltrane! That took a minute to realize. But in essence, Elvin was much more controlled. His timing was much different. He played soft for many, many choruses. He played a lot of brushes. He basically orchestrated the energy, which wasn’t true in Coltrane’s case, where it was Elvin and Coltrane and McCoy, all at the same time. But in this case, it was Elvin’s band, he had young guys with him, and he basically orchestrated the whole thing—without saying anything. When he went up, you went up. When he went down, you had to go down. I spent the first few months with my neck bulging, playing intensity, and he’s playing brushes and saying, “Where are you going? What are you doing there?” The vibe was I’m pushing. He knew that. I was a young guy, I was excited, and that’s what I wanted to try to do. But he matured me slowly, and he was in great control of his drums.
The other thing was that he took a major solo every set, and a long solo. You got to hear a long, expansive drum solo, which you didn’t hear so much with Coltrane.
During those years, how interested were you in changes playing? You were incredibly into Coltrane. Were you as into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson…
DL: Oh, definitely. The two were always Sonny and Trane. For our generation, they always coexisted, always the half-and-half. Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson were on the second line. Those four were the main influences. Then Pharaoh and Archie Shepp, and the people kind of on the fringe who had a particular thing that you liked. We always had these debates. You’d go up to guys on the street and say, “Trane or Sonny?”—this ongoing joke. It meant, “Who’s your strongest influence? Where’s the real deal?” In a way, I was caught between both, because if I played a certain kind of tune, I’d be in Trane’s bag; if I played a certain Sonny kind of tune, I’d be in Sonny’s bag.” That ended up to be a little bit of a challenge to get over.
But with Elvin, we played a combination of chord change tunes, regular standards, and, of course, modal type tunes. There was no piano, so it was very open—just trio, really, with the other horn. I was able to explore both things at the same time, sort of. When I got to Miles, Miles was completely one chord. It was just rock-and-roll, one pedal, E-flat for 45 minutes, let’s say. There it was completely modal. So between those two leaders during those four years, I was able to go harmonically and non-harmonically—or, let’s say, chord changes and also modal and pedal point. Which of course, ended up being what I do. That set the stage for me.
Under what circumstances did you join Miles Davis?
DL: Well, I did On The Corner, and Miles asked me to join, and I said no, because I wanted to be with Elvin.
You were contracted to do On The Corner? You weren’t part of the band.
DL: My mother found me at a doctor’s office in Brooklyn and said, “Teo Macero, whoever he is, said ‘Come NOW’ to 52nd Street and Madison”—I knew exactly where it was. I got in and played on “Black Satin,” the first track, and I did another overdub maybe. Then Miles said, “Join my band,” something like that, kind of offhand. I don’t know if he meant it or what. I said, “I’m with Elvin, and Elvin’s Daddy,” that was my vibe. He didn’t say anything. Then six months later, in January of ‘73, we were playing the Vanguard, and he came down Tuesday night and Wednesday, and by Thursday he was on my case big-time to join. I told him, “You’ve got to talk to Elvin.” And he did. He called me in the middle of the night and he said, “Elvin said you’re fine, and tomorrow night you play with me at the Fillmore, then you go back and finish the week with him and go to the Workshop next week, and then you’re with me.” That was one night where I played with both, actually. January 12, 1973. It was amazing. I played at the re-opening of the Fillmore, which had been closed for a year, and only was open that one night for Miles and Paul Winter, and then closed and never opened again! That was 8 o’clock, and by 10 o’clock I was back playing “Three Card Molly” with Elvin and Steve at the Vanguard. I will never forget that night musically. Of course, it also felt good. But the music was from the 21st century to…well, I walked into the Vanguard, got down the steps, and they were playing a blues, something with that feel, the complete opposite from Miles’ thing, which was all-electric. I couldn’t hear a note I played. That morning I had just had holes put in my horn to put a pickup in. I had no idea what he was playing. Anyway, this was the beginning of that stage, and that went on for about 18 months with Miles.
What was new for you in that?
DL: It wasn’t the rock-and-roll, which I was familiar with—or whatever you want to call it…funk. It was the volume and intensity. It was a loud band. Miles, of course, was playing electric trumpet and wah-wah pedal, and there were no real heads. There were no chord changes. You had to watch him for everything. He pointed to you, he cut you out, he cut the band down—you’ve seen the tapes from there. It was his band all the way. He didn’t want anybody else’s tunes. You didn’t bring anything to the plate. You just were there. The main thing with Miles was the chance to be next to him and hear him play every night. Regardless of the style, the way he played was classic Miles. To be able to hear it from five feet away is different than being on the other side, listening from the audience or listening on a recording. You can’t really get it until you stand next to somebody. That was a big lesson in phrasing. Of course, the way he led the band. The way he nuanced everything, the way he brought the energies to him, and the way he controlled the rhythm section in a music that wasn’t necessarily a give-and-take rhythm section like the jazz era. This was a background. They played more or less the same thing. But the way he controlled things was, of course, a major lesson.
So it was a spontaneous orchestration every night.
DL: Very much so. I mean, it got into patterns, because we did night after night, but it was really on him, what he wanted to do. Of course, he was playing keyboard then. At first there were keyboard players, but he fired them eventually, and then it was just him on the keyboard. He’d play weird voicings with his elbow, and I’d play the alto flute, not knowing what key we’re in! We had some good fun. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed him. He was a complex person. In a lot of ways he was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, it’s true, and he had a lot of drug problems at that time, and a lot of physical problems. But in his heart of hearts, music was everything. It was all music.
Your subsequent career seems marked by an interesting approach to eclecticism. You’re pragmatic, you keep working, and you also put yourself in creatively stimulating situations.
DL: I enjoy a lot of kinds of music. I certainly enjoy my band most, but we play about five different kinds of music in the band. I like the challenge. You are who you are, and the idea is you within a context—you being whatever your style is and how you hear. I hear harmonically a certain way, rhythmically a certain way, etcetera, and that will permeate, whether it’s Puccini or Coltrane or my own tunes. To me, that’s an obvious thing. Of course, I come from this era, the ‘60s, which was the beginning of widespread eclecticism. Now, there were certainly eclectics before, but by the ‘60s you could hear a lot of musics much more readily. It was not unlikely that a listening session could be Bartok, Ravi Shankar, the Bulgarian Girls’ Choir, and then Coltrane or Cecil Taylor or something like that. There could be four or five hours of listening and hanging. All those things affected me—rock-and-roll, world music, classical, especially 20th century classical. I enjoy all of it. On the pragmatic side, I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label. I’ve done a little travel, so you find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys another thing, and so on. I like that.
Lee Konitz has been doing that for about forty years now.
DL: Paul Bley. David Murray. Steve Lacy. It’s not unheard of. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of selling, because you have too much product competing against your other product, and the labels hate it when you do that. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people hear more music that you like, that you’re a part of. I’m really thinking about people who are listeners. Selling is not going to happen anyway, in this day and age. So to me, if I can find a way to express myself and somebody is interested, I’m going to do it, and if it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?
You were saying that you’ve concentrated more on the tenor saxophone over the last decade, since you hit 50.
DL: It has come back in, yes.
What other things have you been working on?
DL: Outside of a little envelope when I had a band with John Scofield for four-five years in the late ‘70s, much of my work after Miles was with Richie Beirach in Quest and Lookout Farm and Duo. My relationship with Richie was based on heavily on harmony, and the tradition coming out of Miles and Coltrane. He took care of the rhythm section and I was the soloist. That was our thing. By 1990, I’d had enough of that, and I really wanted to explore rhythm, to get myself more sophisticated rhythmically. Of course, rhythm is the main thing that’s on everybody’s plate in the last 10-15 years. I’m about to go to Manhattan School of Music and start my course, which is based on my book, A Thematic Approach to Harmony and Melody. But of course, it’s so arcane. It means nothing now, because nobody really uses harmony any more. What we have is a world of rhythm; everything’s not in four any more. In 1991, I felt there was a need for me to get familiar with it. Hence, I hired Jamey Haddad as my drummer, who is an expert on hand drums and an expert on rhythm. That was the band’s focus. Also synthesizer—Phil Markowitz played a lot of synthesizer. And I had Vic Juris there. I wanted more color and more written material than I had with Quest. Quest was really an improvising band. It was four master guys who could play. Not that these guys can’t. But in Quest, we were all from the same generation.
But now, in the last five years or so, I’ve been getting back to harmony, playing with Marc Copland or playing duo with Markowitz. Also, Quest was been reawakened, for our first tour in fifteen years. What happens as you get older, in a certain way, you really don’t care about what anybody thinks (if you ever did), you don’t care about categories, and it really doesn’t matter, because you do what you have to do. Also, time is limited. I’m not being morbid, but 60 is not 40. I’m just going to keep going until I can’t.
You were describing your sense at the top of the ‘90s that nobody plays in four any more…
DL: I’m exaggerating.
But the beginning of the ‘90s is when that approach started to become more mainstream instead of an exotic thing.
You’ve been an educator over those years. Could you give us a bird’s eye view of what’s transpired over this period?
DL: Well, it’s the computer. It’s world music. The influence of odd rhythm has permeated the West. That’s what it comes down to. Which it should have. It’s been there for thousands of years. Playing odd rhythms puts you in a situation where you’re not playing the same thing. You can’t phrase the same way. The generation that came up in the ‘80s, or certainly in the ‘90s, heard everything from the past played so well from the past. How could they find something fresh? We’re graduating so many students from these places who are so well-equipped, are such good musicians, that doing things in odd meter is one way to make things different—at least at the surface. At least you start with a different premise than if you’re playing 4/4 and playing rhythm changes. I think the odd meters have become endemic. It’s everywhere. My students don’t write anything in 4/4! Which is fine. It’s very interesting. The dust is already beginning to settle a little bit, and things will get to where the distinctions are not so… It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
As far as education, the last ten or fifteen years are an amazing period, with hundreds of students who make my generation look like we couldn’t play at all at that age. I certainly can’t compare myself at 21 or 22 years old to these guys. They’re unbelievable. I mean, they’re not mature men and women yet, but they know everything. They know tunes. Their tools are just ridiculous. What we teach them at Manhattan School of Music and what they have to do is so high-level—I tell you, I can’t believe what they turn into. I’m very impressed. What they’re going to do with it, how they’re going to make out, that’s another story. In some ways, the music is as healthy as it’s ever been because of this influx from all over the world. Business-wise, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a complete dichotomy.
I guess there’s a mix between fresh new repertoire and playing… Well, it’s hard to say that playing “Peace on Earth” and “Meditations Suite” is dealing with older forms, but this is music that’s forty years old.
DL: Yes. That’s a very fair comment. First of all, there’s such a wealth of material. Just in general, because something was played once doesn’t mean it can’t be touched again and redone. Everybody knows that, and that’s why they go back and do it, and do it in ways that aren’t recognizable—“deranging” tunes, as it’s called now. An iota of “My Funny Valentine,” they call it “My Funny Valentine,” but it has nothing to do with it. It’s very interesting in a lot of ways. The students don’t really know past-present. They have so much material. With the iPod, they have hundreds of years of music right in their hands. History doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to us. So the little that we can do, somebody of my generation…
It’s all information. Decontextualized information.
DL: Yes. And it’s hard to find a way into it. As somebody who has a link to this, through my roots in Trane and Elvin and Miles, which was my school of learning, I feel a responsibility to play the older material. Not only, not exclusively, but to play it and reinterpret it and make it present. It’s part of what we’re supposed to do. This is the tradition. I believe in it. I don’t have Lincoln Center as a soapbox, but I believe exactly the way Wynton Marsalis does in that respect. We have a strong tradition. I’m very proud to be part of it. I feel like we have to continue it. I think it’s a good thing for somebody to see somebody in my position playing it—mixed with my own material, of course.
You mentioned recording for many different labels in recent years. Organizing all that activity and keeping the contexts separate must also be a bit of a challenge.
DL: I’m also an educator, and writing books. I can only say I’m very happy that some people enjoy and respect what I do. There’s no real money in it. In fact, in some cases, recording you ends up costing people. To me, records always have been basically a calling card. It’s a means for you to classify your material, and then once you do it, and it’s on the shelf, you can move on. From an artistic standpoint, it’s a necessity, if you can, to close the door on a certain music, or a certain tune, or a certain idiom, or whatever. Also, it’s a way for people to know you’re around. To me, it’s a way for those people who enjoy my music, for fans (I have a couple here and there, not thousands) to know I’m still active, still going. I’m always inspired by older musicians who continue to evolve. When you have 30-40-50 years under the bridge, it’s not easy to find new ways of doing things. For the first ten or twenty, you’re supposed to find new stuff. But when you get past 20-25 years, you’ve done a lot, heard a lot, been inspired a lot, you’ve written those amazing tunes based on your experiences and all that stuff. You’ve had your political awakening, your love awakening, your social awakening. Not that it ends, but you can’t repeat what you’ve done. Being creative… It’s one thing to die early, but it’s another thing to keep going! I got to tell you, it’s not easy, man, to keep going and be creative and have self-respect. It’s a matter of having respect for yourself. If other people see it that way, that’s their business. But I know I need to feel good about what I do. So I need to not repeat, if I can help it, and try to move on—and it’s not easy.
You made a classical music duo recording not long ago, called Vienna Dialogues [Zoho]. Has that been more of a preoccupation over the last decade?
DL: Not really. I’ve always been interested in 20th century classical music because of the harmonic content, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been less interested in pre-20th century. I was doing something in Vienna, where the tradition is very strong, and I was inspired by the songs—just piano and voice (or in this case, soprano). I found a young pianist, Bobby Avey, who was willing to put in the time to help me find the tunes and arrange them. This is a very straightforward, lyrical recording of songs by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, celebrating the great European tradition. I didn’t take the songs apart, or change too much—we just played on the songs. That music is what forms the basis of the harmonic music of our time. These are the guys who laid it down.
In the program notes you wrote: “There are several unique challenges. Accuracy of pitch, of course, is crucial, but more important from the aesthetic side, the challenge is to convey an emotional attitude culled from the written music while infusing it with one’s own personal set of inflections, guided above all by good taste. The balance between too little and too much is very precarious.”
DL: Yes. It’s one thing to take a Duke Ellington tune, as on a gig I did at Yoshi’s in 2006 with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, where we played “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” every set, and then phrase it and work with it the way you want At least to me, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But with Chopin and Schubert and Schumann, you have to watch yourself that you don’t go overboard—and I definitely can easily go overboard. One thing I’ve been guilty of has been in excess. I know that. That’s part of my M.O. But when you play a delicate, lyrical song with piano and soprano, it’s important to have good judgment and good taste—to try to be underneath rather than over. That objective-subjective line is an interesting thing. How much of me is in it? How much of It is it? When do you detach yourself from the art? When is the art strong enough that it conveys itself by you being the messenger? All these questions are posed when you are interpreting classic…not just classical, but the classic material. How much is you? How much do you let the music take itself? Etcetera. Of course, every man and woman has a different view on those questions, from a listening standpoint, But from a performance standpoint, you do have to take an interpretive stance. That’s what that paragraph is about.
What do you want to be doing in ten years?
DL: Keep doing it, man. Getting on that plane is getting tough. I’ve got to figure out what to do, because it’s getting harder and harder to get to where you’ve got to get. I’m not even taking the horns. I bring my mouthpiece. But I’m afraid I’m going to get to an airport and they’ll say, “Put the soprano underneath.” That’s the end of that. Things like that are happening. But I hope to continue doing what I’m doing and continue with the music.
Interview notes: Dave Liebman was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 7, 2006