Sax Addict: Dave Liebman Shows No Signs of Slowing Down
by Ted Panken, Jazziz
When Dave Liebman gigs, teaches or does business in New York City, he often relocates from his Poconos home to a well-appointed 22nd-floor time share in midtown, a block east of Carnegie Hall and a block west of Trump Tower. You could find Liebman there during the last week of February when he played a Tuesday-to-Saturday run at Birdland with the Saxophone Summit sextet, followed by an evening as guest soloist with the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra at the Jazz Standard.
Around noon on Thursday of that week, the 72-year-old NEA Jazz Master — showered and shaved, wearing an off-white work shirt, blue jeans and sturdy black shoes — was easing into his day in the sitting room. Across from him, at a small table by the window, his wife of 32 years, oboist and composer Caris Visentin Liebman, perused her laptop, cataloguing photographs, in particular a cache documenting the recent wedding of their daughter, Lydia, a high-profile jazz publicist.
After minimal chit-chat, Liebman, whose website discography cites more than 500 leader, co-leader or sideman credits, turned his attention to a stack of recent and forthcoming CDs on a glass coffee table. “As this pile demonstrates, I am prolific, thankfully, and very eclectic,” he says.
He picks out Street Talk (Enja), Saxophone Summit’s fifth album, for which each band member contributed an original song. These provided the raw materials for a fire-breathing opening-night first set at Birdland, the group’s first public appearance since a summer 2017 tour of Europe that preceded the recording. 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, his hips braced against a stool, played soprano saxophone with the jab-and-thrust approach of his 1973-74 employer, Miles Davis, maintaining a constant dance with a provocative rhythm section comprised of pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart.
“I started Saxophone Summit because of my relationship with Michael Brecker,” Liebman says, noting that the iconic tenor saxophonist “was like a brother to me” and that he was integral to the group’s identity and stature until his death in 2007. Liebman adds that during the early ’70s, when he was entering the international jazz conversation after consecutive long-haul gigs with Elvin Jones and Miles, Brecker inherited his $125-a-month fourth-floor loft, with piano, in a no-elevator building on West 19th Street. Along with pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa, Liebman had moved into the building 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 recalls, 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, cacophonous and deep as hell” — was their lodestar and lingua franca. That’s why, in 1998, after a Coltrane tribute concert in Japan, Liebman told Brecker, “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.”
“Michael and I put this together,” Liebman says. “Joe was the obvious pick for third saxophone, and Michael trusted me to pick the rhythm section. I was going to lead Michael back to the promised land, so to speak. What he was doing was great, even unbelievable, but Michael did things in a very structured way, and I wanted to get him back on the free jazz thing. It sounds clichéd, but it was an attempt to re-create the ’60s. I wanted free jazz to be understood, that we did this in our youth — and during the late ’90s it wasn’t being done. We put a couple of years into playing like that.”
What developed from these loft investigations is apparent in Lovano’s recollection of first hearing Liebman alongside saxophonist Steve Grossman on Elvin Jones’ 1972 recording Live at the Lighthouse. “Every time Dave picks up his horn, he reaches very deep inside his soul and feelings,” Lovano says. “The energy they played with was so strong and real, and they were from my generation. It was clear that I had to reach for that level of energy and sound.”
Next, Liebman grabbed Eternal Voices (CMP), his forthcoming 50th or so collaboration with Beirach. They celebrate a half-century of friendship and mutual investigation with a series of open improvisations based on the slow movements of Bartok’s string quartets, and on works by Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mompou and Fauré. “Richie ended up living in a four-story tenement on Spring Street, near the Hudson River, where nobody lived,” Liebman says. “He grew up three blocks away from me in Brooklyn, but I didn’t know him then. In Brooklyn, two blocks is 10,000 people.
“Richie was and is a great teacher. He knew the classical shit, including 20th-century music from the piano. I knew that I had to know more about it, because that was a definite void in my education. We were trying to play the way those guys wrote. Anyway, 20th-century harmony — how to play pretty far away from the key center — was basically what Chick, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner were doing. He showed me a lot of those secrets.”
More recent acquaintances are drummers Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, Liebman’s partners on the Rare Noise release Chi, an intense, flowing concert wherein Coltrane’s musical production after 1965 is the default basis of operations. (Liebman has performed his wife’s transcription of Coltrane’s 1966 release Meditations every five years since the 1980s.) Traversing the open space is also the operative aesthetic on Fire, on which Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Ken Werner join Liebman in interpreting a programmatic six-part suite, the penultimate installment of four extended works intended, as Liebman says, “to musically depict the natural elements that surround us.” The final “elements suite,” Earth (Whaling City), the fifth album by the current Dave Liebman Group — a quintet with veteran bassist Tony Marino and 30ish partners Bobby Avey on piano, Matt Vashlishan on EWI and Alex Ritz on drums — receives a more structured treatment.
Finally, Liebman glanced at Petite Fleur (Origin), a melody-drenched duo with guitarist John Stowell — their second — devoted to the oeuvre of Sidney Bechet, the soprano saxophone pioneer who established the template from which Coltrane and Steve Lacy branched off into their respective conceptions. Liebman’s personality on tenor is an admixture of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson in varying proportions, depending on the context. But the soprano saxophone is the instrument through which he feels he channels a unique sonic identity.
“David took the instrument to another level,” his wife says. “He came up through the tradition, and almost like an artist took a lot of different qualities and incorporated them into a style which is very angular, with colors that are bright and dark, light and dense. That’s reflected in his exploration of harmony, which is phenomenal; he’s taken it into areas other people have not.”
After remarking on the soprano’s ergonomic benefits, Liebman notes that it connects him to “Bedouin, Semitic desert roots.” “The soprano has everything,” he says, recalling that during his 40s he put the tenor aside to focus exclusively on merging with the intractable B-flat instrument. “It’s Indian. It’s Miles — On the Corner, screeching. I’ll always play tenor, but there’s nothing left after Trane.”
“It’s important to record,” Liebman says. “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 led 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 or what I am as a person.”
As an example, “The Sound Guru (Overtone Improvisation)” references renowned woodwind pedagogue Joe Allard, whose orbit Liebman entered 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 — 30 minutes on the subway from his Flatbush neighborhood — were $25 per hour. “My mother said, ‘Carnegie Hall Studios. Wow, he must be quite impressive.’” Liebman recalls. “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 using any books — I don’t know what I’m doing.’ She said, ‘Wait a bit.’ Eventually, 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, mental toughness and can-do attitude to Leo and Frances Liebman, evoked in the “The Parents,” a gentle, resolute tenor saxophone incantation that opens To My Masters. They were Brooklyn-based schoolteachers who both became assistant principals. During the school year his father ran an after-school community center. During summers, he counseled at a Catskills camp where his mother taught arts and crafts.
“I was sick a lot after I had polio,” Liebman says. “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 sugarcoat his disability. “She was pragmatic — straightahead, 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 — 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 from NYU. Instead of immediately finding a job, he rented a cabin in the Catskills, practiced day and night, returned to the city and soon found his loft. “I had to play to get better, and I wasn’t cut out for club dates or studio work,” he says. “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 didn’t live 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 30th annual meeting convenes this summer in Zagreb, Croatia. But the honorific was testament to her tireless ministrations. A decade later, although Liebman has lost some mobility, he retains his relentless work ethic. He refuses to allow his disability to interfere with his life path.
“By the time you get in your 70s, if you don’t have something fucked up, you’re reallylucky,” he says. “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.’”- Ted Panken