Dave Liebman on Sax + Two Drummers = Free Jazz Without the Jazz

Photo courtesy of Pitbellula

Adam Rudolph, Dave Liebman, and Tatsuya Nakatani have summoned the appropriate named Unknowable.

The Unknowable
Adam Rudolph, Dave Liebman, Tatsuya Nakatani


23 Feb 2018

The Unknowable isn't one of those free jazz projects that's spear-headed by one particular musician. With saxophonist Dave Liebman being flanked by two percussionists, you can be forgiven for wrongly assuming that he's a the star of the show here. Instead, The Unknowable is one of those bizarre meeting of the minds where two percussionists seem to have just as much power over the sound as does one wind instrument -- perhaps even more. From the first track alone, it's clear that this isn't an Ornette Coleman kind of experiment. These three guys are sailing up, up and away, far from what most people would call contemporary jazz.

Dave Liebman, Adam Rudolph, and Tatsuya Nakatani have known each other and worked with each other in various ensembles over the years, but this disc marks their first time as a trio. Between the three of them, no less than 18 instruments are being used in real time to create a stew of sounds that would put a musical therapist on edge. These include a thumb piano, a Fender Rhodes, four pieces of a handrumset, three different kinds of flutes, a mbuti harp, pieces of metal, and live electronic processing. The Unknowable may come across as some sort of studio Frankenstein on paper, but Liebman, Rudolph, and Nakatani can probably replicate most of these weird sounds on stage if you asked them to.

This music marks the point where noise and ambient meet while on free jazz turf. Completely improvised, it shows no allegiance to genre or geographic location. Just when you think that Eastern sounds will prevail, the wind blows the notion away to either the west or nowhere familiar. Song titles like "Skyway Dream", "The Turning", and "The Simple Truth" are intentionally vague, almost suggesting that these titles are of little-to-no importance. The percussive aspect is certainly more than just two guys banging on things. The sounds they conjure range from minimalist onstinatos to metallic screeching. Liebman's saxophone will occasionally get an echo treatment where the ends of his phrases will morph into a new soundscape of its own before it fades away completely.

The Unknowable is one of those albums where I find myself checking the credits over and over again. Is nobody playing a distorted electric guitar? Did a fourth person drop into the studio to lay down some synthesizer? Was everything here truly improvised, or did someone start with a germ of an idea and not admit it? And am I certain that this album wasn't recorded in a Tibetan cave miles above sea level and not some studio in New Jersey? The credits prove me wrong on all counts, but that still leaves the challenge of coming up with a label for this kind of music. But if song titles for improvised instrumental pieces are about as important to you as genre labels, then you have nothing to lose by taking the plunge into The Unknowable.





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.