At 64, Dave Liebman is having his moment. The restlessly creative and indefatigable tenor and soprano saxophonist, bandleader, composer and educator will receive a 2011 NEA Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment of the Arts at a ceremony Tuesday in New York. The $25,000 prize is the nation’s highest honor for jazz, and Liebman, who came to prominence in the ‘70s, is the first of his generation to receive the brass ring.
He’s gotten a splash of press in the wake of the award, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll ever transcend his musicians’ musician profile. No one is more respected by his peers. But the sad reality, as Liebman pointed out recently in Down Beat magazine, is that his quartet still can’t secure a weeklong gig in New York because clubs think he won’t do enough business.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Liebman was first inspired by John Coltrane and apprenticed with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis before leading a series of underrated and quietly influential bands — Lookout Farm in the ‘70s, Quest in the ‘80s and the Dave Liebman Group since the ‘90s. He’s explored jazz-rock, acoustic post-bop, free jazz, funk, fusion, mixed meters, global influences and 20th -Century classical harmony.
While barnstorming tirelessly around the world for decades and recording obsessively for mostly boutique labels, he’s also become a guru of jazz education and saxophone mechanics. Liebman’s eclecticism — a byproduct of an inquisitive mind and a generation that cut its teeth during the musical and social ferment of the ‘60s and early ‘70s — colors a tsunami of newly released CDs and vintage downloads.
“Turnaround” (4 stars, Jazzwerkstatt) by the Dave Liebman Group takes a novel approach to free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman’s songbook. Liebman recalibrates the singsong melodies with detailed harmonic blueprints; the results blossom with surprise and expression. On the beboppish “Bird Food,” Liebman’s agitated soprano skitters over a modal-Latin vamp by guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko. On the prayerful “Lonely Woman,” Liebman’s laser-like wood flute emerges from a primordial ooze of electronics.
Liebman’s music is often dense and severe, but Coleman’s joyous aesthetic inspires lighter air and earthier melody, including Liebman’s blues preaching on the title track.
A singular character, Liebman has a gruff New York exterior but a sweet heart and field of vision broader than most musicians in or out of jazz. He’s unusually self-aware: An anxiety of influence propelled his career as he willed himself beyond Coltrane’s suffocating shadow, even giving up the tenor from 1980-95 to focus on the soprano.
He emerged with a personal voice on both horns: darkly incantatory, furiously intense, risk-laden, harmonically astute, rhythmically free, roiling passion tempering a sharp intellect.
“Lieb Plays the Blues a l a Trane ” (3 stars, Daybreak), an off-the-cuff live CD made one night in 2008 in a Belgium club with bassist Marius Beets and drummer Eric Ineke, captures the saxophonist riffing on his lifelong study of Coltrane. Liebman comes home to his roots. His tenor roars through swinging chorus after chorus on “Take the Coltrane” with a pitch-black tone and driving lines relieved by split-tone screams and idiosyncratic swirls. He’s wild on tenor, slippery on soprano.
Yet another live European recording, “Re-Dial” (3 stars, Out Note) documents a productive 2007 reunion of Quest, for my money Liebman’s finest group. With pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure and miraculous drummer Billy Hart, Quest was a take-no-prisoners acoustic quartet in the spirit of Trane and Miles that could swing like nobody’s business or fracture time into a loose, four-way conversation.
Coltrane’s “Brazilia” recaptures the magic, powered to a violent climax by Beirach’s whip-like prodding, Hart’s orchestrated freedom and Liebman’s sweeping rhapsodies, which aim for catharsis. Generally, “Re-Dial” has a more introspective, perhaps freer cast than in the old days; there are also times when the gang sounds as if it’s still getting reacquainted. The improvisations aren’t as extended, and even the band’s theme, Beirach’s pedal-point burn, “Pendulum,” is measured.
On another front, “As Always” (2 stars, Mama), by the Dave Liebman Big Band led by Gunnar Mossblad, features Liebman’s compositions gussied up by several arrangers with the saxophonist soloing on soprano. The game band is composed of New York pros anchored by Liebman’s regular rhythm section, and it’s fun to hear his savvy pieces expanded for 17 musicians. Still, many of the arrangements have an academic gloss, though Mossblad’s “Philippe Under the Green Bridge” is an exception — a weightless chromatic universe with pillowy-spiky textures and a hip oboe-soprano sax duet.
Finally, a gold mine of downloads is available documenting Liebman’s key partnership with Beirach, a wizard of harmony and tension and release. “Quest Live 1988 + 1991” (4 stars) is indispensible: three CDs capturing the band at the peak of its charisma, fire and invention ($17.98 at Amazon or $34.99 for a deluxe iTunes edition with a recorded Liebman-Beirach interview and booklet ). One CD of this music was issued in 2004 in a Mosaic Select box with discs also given to Lookout Farm and the Liebman-Beirach duo. Downloads of these other groups have also been released, but I haven’t auditioned them.
I have downloaded “Pendulum: Live at the Village Vanguard, NYC” (4 stars), 11 dynamic tracks from 1978 that pair Liebman and Beirach with trumpeter Randy Brecker (in GREAT form), bassist Frank Tusa and drummer Al Foster. (Mosaic Select previously released these tracks in a box.) The music is mainstream post-bop with an emphasis on common-practice standards — jazz as tribal language.