Sep 252010

I’m willing to risk this statement: Dave Liebman’s 2009 CD Turnaround, as yet unreleased in the US, is a masterpiece.

Turnaround. Jazzwerkstatt CD; currently not distributed in the US; obtainable through amazon.de, €10.16 + shipping); live performance at Scullers at the DoubleTree Guest Suites, Boston, MA, September 16, 2010.

Reviewed by Steve Elman.

I can only approach Dave Liebman’s work in a spirit of humility.

He is among the most admired of the baby boom’s post-Coltrane saxophonists—as an artist, he is certainly equal to John Klemmer, George Garzone, Steve Grossman, Joe Lovano, and the late Michael Brecker, just to name five other superb players born between 1946 and 1952.

He writes through-composed, formal pieces as well as tunes for his working bands, of which he has several. He maintains one of the most strenuous performing schedules in music. In the final third of 2010, for example, he is booked for more than 20 one-night concert and club dates throughout the US, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. He muses extensively and perceptively in his website newsletter, “Intervals,” where he posts every other month. He’s authored instructional books and DVDs for jazz improvisers. He directs the International Association of Jazz Schools.

In December 2009, he received the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. In January next year, he will receive the National Endowment for the Arts’s Jazz Masters Award.

His working quartet is one of the most cohesive and brilliant small ensembles making music today. He’s been working with guitarist Vic Juris and bassist Tony Marino for two decades and with drummer Marko Marcinko for 10 years. In the live performances I’ve seen, they display a spectacular group intuition and a fearsome command of their axes. (Juris in particular is a consummate musician who ought to be known as a guitar hero.)

Dave Liebman Group

But what’s even more stunning is Liebman’s lifetime discography, a body of music that almost constitutes a diary. From 2005 to the present, 53 new commercial releases have featured his playing, and two more will be available soon. Let that sink in for a minute—55 recordings in 69 months. On average, one has come to market every five weeks. By the way, only (only!) 12 of the above represent dates where he was the leader. He shared first-chair roles with other musicians on 26 of the others and performed as a sideman on the remainder.

Incredibly, he has three more CDs in the pipeline, which should appear in late 2010 or early 2011. Not bad for a guy who just turned 64.

I’ve interviewed Liebman and enjoyed his company offstage on several occasions since the early 1980s, but I haven’t heard even a quarter of his recorded work. Even so, I’m willing to risk this statement: his 2009 CD Turnaround, as yet unreleased in the US, is a masterpiece.

This release introduces 10 fascinating arrangements of Ornette Coleman compositions, plus one Ornettish original, with the members of the quartet at the top of their game. The recording is warm and spacious. The package design is striking and elegant. No wonder German jazz critics and journalists named it album of the year for 2010.

This is the first time that Liebman has undertaken a systematic exploration of Ornette’s music. In his liner notes, he offers an admirably clear discussion of his goals, including what he calls “‘loan[ing]’ harmony to some of the more likely [Coleman] material.” The results are object lessons of how to play Ornette without imitating Ornette. When I complimented him on what I’d heard, he smiled and said, “Yeah, I really worked on those arrangements.”

Each Coleman tune on the CD has a distinctive character; some of them undergo two or three metamorphoses within the same arrangement. For example, “Bird Food” becomes crisply-punctuated bebop, taking its cue from the title. “The Blessing” gets dressed up in light swing clothing. Vic Juris’s arrangement of “Una Muy Bonita” starts and ends with a Pat Methenyish Latin feel, framing fleet straight time for the solos. “Enfant” is broken into shards played in different tempi, with harmonic underpinning that enriches and illuminates.

These few thumbnails can’t begin to describe how those ideas are enhanced by the improvisations. Every twist and turn of the solo work seems effortless; the players’ statements grow organically out of the heads; each performance has a well-wrought sense of beginning, middle, and end. And this is all done without wasted words—no tune runs longer than seven minutes.

Two of the settings are particularly marvelous, and the quartet expanded on both of them when they visited Scullers on September 16.

For those who want to do a bit of compare-and-contrast, here are Ornette Coleman’s own recordings of the compositions played by the Dave Liebman Group on Turnaround:

“Enfant” and “Cross Breeding” were originally released on Ornette on Tenor (Atlantic LP, 1962; Atlantic CD, 1993).

“Turnaround” was originally released on Tomorrow Is the Question! (Contemporary LP, 1959; Atlantic CD, 1990); it received a new Coleman interpretation on Sound Grammar (Phrase Text CD, 2006).

“Kathelin Gray” (co-written by Coleman and Pat Metheny) was originally released on Metheny’s Song X (Geffen CD, 1986; reissued with additional tracks on Nonesuch CD, 2005).

“Bird Food,” “The Face of the Bass,” and “Una Muy Bonita” were originally released on Change of the Century (Atlantic LP, 1960; Atlantic CD, 1992).

“Lonely Woman” was originally released on The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic LP, 1959; Atlantic CD, 1990).

“Beauty is a Rare Thing” was originally released on This is Our Music (Atlantic LP, 1961; Atlantic CD, 1998; Sepia-Tone CD, 2002)

“The Blessing” was originally released on Something Else!!! (Contemporary LP, 1958; Original Jazz Classics [Fantasy] CD, 1991)

Note: Ornette on Tenor, Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and This is Our Music were reissued in Beauty is a Rare Thing, a CD anthology of Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, issued by Atlantic in 1993.

Getting a new angle on “Lonely Woman,” one of Ornette’s most familiar tunes, must have posed a challenge. Liebman decided to play it very simply, on wooden flute, giving it a mysterious introduction of electronic guitar effects and then nestling the theme in a cradle of lovely open harmonies from chiming guitar and arco bass. It makes for a striking seven minutes on the CD. But in live performance, the quartet almost doubled the length of the recorded version, adding a guitaristic introduction by Tony Marino (playing electric bass instead of the acoustic heard on the CD) and a long excursion into the rain forest by guitarist Vic Juris, with Marko Marcinko’s table full of miscellaneous percussion instruments giving accent and color.

When Liebman finally began to play the line, I could see how much of a challenge this bare-bones approach really is, since the limits of the wooden flute require him to approximate many of the notes of Ornette’s theme with half-stops and other tricks of finger and embouchure. In less experienced hands, the concept might have dissolved into chaos or fatuous noodling, but this was profound and powerful, and best of all, it brought out aspects of the theme that I’d never considered.

The title tune of the CD, “Turnaround,” is also a well-covered composition, one of Ornette’s cheeriest blues pieces. The quartet’s interpretation of it deserves a blow-by-blow description.

On the CD, bassist Marino and drummer Marcinko set up a light funk foundation at about 100 beats per minute (BPM). Juris accents this with some attack-less guitar accents, manipulating the volume on his instrument so that the chords seem to float like smoke rings. But the funk is belied when Liebman (on tenor) and Juris play the head, holding their tempo at about 66 BPM. Both halves of the quartet carry their parts of this schizophrenia forward through Juris’s solo, a one-minute marvel of short lines and contemporary guitar effects. He shows his chops and his mastery of the gear without ever grandstanding, and, even though he plays very freely, he never loses the feel that he is going more slowly than the bassist and drummer.

Then the head returns, with the rhythm section pushing the funk harder and sax and guitar going about their work even more deliberately. Bass and drums briefly speed up to about 122 BPM (almost twice the pace of the guitar and sax line) for the second half of the theme, and then Liebman gets his solo, just under a minute—a seven-second a capella break, 13 seconds over the fast funk rhythm, another seven seconds a capella (with a couple of Marcinko accents), 14 seconds over the slow funk rhythm, and seven more seconds a capella.

All of the trademarks of Liebman’s soloing flash by—fiery arpeggios, throaty low-register stuff, vocal effects, a tiny hint of electronic manipulation—even with all the decorations, he still holds to a slowish feel. Under Liebman’s final notes, Marcinko and Marino set up a classic driving swing with a backbeat at 122 BPM, and the head returns. For a few seconds, it seems like there will finally be a compromise—Liebman and Juris play the first half at almost exactly half-tempo. But as the rhythm section cooks harder, sax and guitar drop back to about 74 BPM. Somehow everyone lands at the same place by the time they finish the line, and the tune roils to a conclusion. This all happens in six minutes and 45 seconds.

Dave Liebman—a force of nature

In performance at Scullers, the quartet stretched out, and the colors changed considerably, with Marino playing electric bass and Liebman playing soprano saxophone. The tune had greater tension than in the CD version, but it still showed the same paradoxical cohesion. The initial setup had more of a late-Miles feel, à la “On the Corner,” when Dave was working in the Davis band. The sections approached the tune with the same split-tempo approach, but they actually seemed to be fighting one another for control rather than pursuing their goals independently.

During Juris’s solo, the rhythm section slipped into a relaxed groove (different from the guitarist’s tempo, of course), but then shifted and sharpened under him. Liebman’s solo began a capella and moved into electronic-echo territory, showing off more from his extra-saxophone tools than is heard on the CD. The last minute or so was a boiling blur, conflict and cooperation at the same time.

Showing one more detail, instead of playing the two Ornette arrangements separately at Scullers, Liebman melded them, with Marcinko building the bridge, starting in the rain forest with mallets and atmospheric slides across the traps and then switching to sticks to bring things into the city.

The Scullers performance had other highlights: “Brother Ernesto,” an electric bossa; 6/8 reinterpretations of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and Miles Davis’s “All Blues”; and a remarkable recasting of music by Olivier Messiaen.

Liebman’s quartet is currently in the middle of a West Coast swing, with dates coming up in Oakland and Santa Cruz (CA) and Portland (OR). They have one more New England date this fall: a show at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro on Saturday, October 9.

You might wish to note these new releases, which I have yet to hear: “Live at 55,” with the quartet, recorded in performance at the 55 Bar in New York; and “As Always,” with his big band. See his website for far more info about everything Liebman.

And be forewarned; Dave returns to the area on November 1 for a club date at the Lily Pad in Cambridge. It promises to be a night to remember—Liebman and drummer Rakalam Bob Moses, who comprise two-thirds of the venerable free-jazz ensemble Open Sky, will join forces with The Fringe (George Garzone, John Lockwood, and Bob Gullotti). Sparks will fly.

Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (Quartet for the End of Time) is scored for clarinet, piano, and strings, an instrumentation that allows a jazz translation without too much tinkering. From it Liebman pulled out the “Danse de la fureur.” It began with Juris on acoustic guitar at first playing in the margins of the instrument like Derek Bailey and then moving to more traditional lines with a bit of percussion on the body of the instrument.

As he has done so often in my experience, he showed a rich imagination, never allowing his prodigious technique to overshadow his musical message. Liebman had an a capella spot, again using some of his electronic toys to supplement his soprano, and finally the section joined in, setting up a rock feel for Messiaen’s theme. Marino took a mighty fuzz-bass solo, which turned into a conversation with Juris, now on electric guitar. Then Liebman and Marcinko took over for a set of exchanges that gradually became a simultaneous saxophone-percussion conversation, leading back to the theme.

I’ve failed to mention Dave’s own tunes in this piece, but please understand. I’m only a mere mortal. I don’t live in Dave Liebman’s world, where there are no limits.


Read more by Steve Elman

Follow Steve Elman on Twitter

Email Steve Elman

 Leave a Reply