Saxophone Summit (Mike Brecker, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman): Gathering of Spirits

Dave Liebman)
Gathering of Spirits
Mike Brecker, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman

The group takes as one of its main planks the thesis (stated by Liebman) that “In his final years, Coltrane’s music included amazingly beautiful, lyrical melodies offset by intense, abstract and dissonant free group improvisation…” and that that music has been “largely underappreciated and explored”. Late Coltrane was an influence on all three musicians in their earliest playing years, and I suppose the nearest they get to their teens here is the title track. It sounds to me rather a pastiche of elements of Coltrane during his last two or three years, though the fearsome baying, barking and belling of these three tenors sounds a shade nearer Mingus’s Pithecanthropus Erectus music, the converging horns of “A Foggy Day”. I’m sure it couldn’t be played better, but it’s too imitative. Then again, I found the “intense, abstract and dissonant” rather too offsetting at the time.

Is the face of final period Coltrane beautiful in itself, or a fond familiar singularity: or is the music a mine of stimulations and inspirations? How much here remains ore rather than (not to use the term ‘refined’, which applies very much here at times in its non-chemical sense) assayed for purity of realisation?

Anyway, the standout performance on this CD is Cecil McBee’s on “Tricycle Bass”, a Liebman composition which affords amazing opportunities for the exercise of a pretty well colloquial vocabulary. Phil Markowitz is always there and solid on piano, Billy Hart is reliable, but this is music in which the bassist oftener than his mates takes the focus in the rhythm trio.

The gentler side of the sometime monster noise of Coltrane’s tenor does have considerable play here in a lot of the music, McBee opening “Peace on Earth” and playing along with I think Brecker with soothing bowed phrases until all three tenors take up a unison statement as that performance’s climax. Then comes “Tricycle Bass” with a long solo intro by McBee with delicate fingerwork then bow. The tenor entry is incredibly soft, presumably Liebman, although Lovano too could match Warne Marsh when playing with Marsh’s old partner Lee Konitz in the Paul Motian-Bill Frisell quintet. But all three tenors play this soft way together before Markowitz enters solo to play something like the less spooky things in Scriabin. Or maybe it was only two tenors and the bass clarinet on which I presume Lovano comes in. McBee and Hart complement the beautifully played high register bass clarinet — or is it just a clarinet? — prior to some impressively light interaction by all three horns, swung effortlessly by the bassist. Hart’s lengthy drum solo is delicate and his rapid foot-pedal tomtom has a lot to do with the impulsion of presumably (on the present premisses) Brecker’s cool-school-toned tenor, which progresses to find a nice line, which he restates complete before the other two horns join in to ride the thing out in unison with a conclusion as beautifully organised as anything in the big band repertoire.

I find the last track too big a contrast and switch back from “Gathering of Spirits” to the opener, in the style of Lovano’s Live at the Vanguard Tadd Dameronism. The flowing ensemble of that sort of thing recurs a few times here. Liebman’s on soprano and takes the second solo, followed I think by Lovano sounding nicely big-toned. The horns then do a bit of trading of passages, culminating in some contrapuntal stuff not far from the oldtime up-and-down of neo-Dixieland then back to the flowing velvet-napped Dameronian opening. The tune’s called “Alexander the Great” and allegedly based on “Bye, Bye, Blackbird”, but there’s “Straight, No Chaser” in it, too.

Markowitz’s “12th2 Man” is not the guy who brings out the drinks during pauses in a hot day’s cricket — which is what the title suggests to a Briton. Judas? Jesus? It’s surely “Love for Sale”, which the rhythm keep going even melodically all through. First Brecker (I think!) has a tenor solo which at moments of swelling intensity performs trombone imitations. Liebman’s soprano comes next, performing modal gyrations like the first soloist, only cooler, even with his style more bubbling and bouncy than Coltrane’s on that horn.

The third soloist, on tenor, has more the sound of a cool school player, and his phrasing swings irresistibly even as he goes into some of the quietest screeching climaxes I’ve heard. The delicate and complex arranged conclusion is presaged by Liebman turning his soprano into a sort of ad hoc Chet Baker sound.

On the whole I find the more ostensibly late Coltranean sounds here offsetting, I mean offsetting the attainment of an individuality not quite realised. The elements don’t quite cohere, a common early complaint about the music of the one Dameron-Coltrane quartet session — and its echo on one track of Lovano’s recent Vanguard album. I’ve not mentioned “India”, the Coltrane composition which here opens and closes with what sounds like flute and piccolo. The opening tenor solo is too nearly pastiche Trane; whereas while there are McCoy Tyner licks in Markowitz’s solo, it’s beautifully individually controlled. He doesn’t have Tyner’s distinctive individuality, but his own individuality isn’t forfeit to trying for it.

The second tenor solo is much more of a piece, under the control of a personal voice, even when producing the high-note excitement which Liebman very resourcefully takes up in his solo. By producing the excited sounds more quietly ar no louder than his build-up the soloist preceding Liebman really sets Liebman on a plateau — a wonderful transition — which lets him operate in a way already giving more meaning to his every note.

The notes refer to Jazz at the Philharmonic as a precedent for multiple saxophone performances. Jazz at the Philharmonic was however an on-stage presentation — on very big stages (like the Philharmonic Hall for which it was named) — of music as produced at the after-hours sessions which were the very real jazz, quite apart from the sometimes nonetheless equally real jazz of club sets. These sessions (obviously represented by live sessions at Minton’s early private equipment documented) are more like the precedents for this set. There are so many recordings these days. and featuring long solos and by men long well known to each other, there’s a certain blurring of distinctions between studio sessons and live gigs and any other cases of playing together. There are some passages of marvellous music, but with what I don’t think does come off this set has something of the character of a very interesting rehearsal tape.