by Rob Shepherd, NextBop
Scientists estimate that the earth vibrates at varying frequencies between 7.83 and 33.8 Hz. Of course, music also consists of rhythmic waves, though they are limited to our unaided hearing range from 20 to 20,000 Hz. As a result, many of our planet’s tones are wholly incapable of being perceived. Earth, the latest Expansions album lead by saxophonist Dave Liebman undertakes the Herculean act of transforming the entirety of planetary sounds into a human auditory experience. At this effort, the band overwhelmingly succeeds.
On “Volcano/Avalanche” one sonically witnesses the fury of plates sliding against one another with explosive results. “The Sahara” shifts to a lonely camel rider trotting across a beautiful, yet desolate and arid, land only to be subsumed by a violent sandstorm. “Grand Canyon/Mt Everest” depicts great high and low natural contours which later transform to the urban and artificial ones of “Concrete Jungle.” Separating each main track is a series of solo (on one, duet) interludes which serve to transition between scenes as if traveling from place to place. By “Wind Synth Interlude” these voyages move out of orbit to viewing the “Galaxy” more broadly.
Earth is a heavily exploratory musical affair, both compositionally and in terms of delivery. Each song utilizes specific intervallic elements to better express their subject. “Sahara” relies on major and minor seconds to depict heat and sun whereas “Concrete Jungle” portrays hectic city life by fourths and fifths. In doing so, the musicians emphasize texture above traditional notions of harmony or melody. This method of songwriting does not always succeed or advance the album’s overarching concept. The two versions of “Earth Theme”, for instance, seem to distract from the record’s overall arc more than add to it. Placing the primary focus on feeling rather than more traditional musical hallmarks is also likely to be off-putting to some listeners. Nevertheless, the unique techniques adopted generally strengthen the artists’ storytelling and render even the primarily electronic soundscapes – with soprano sax the only consistently acoustic instrument – uncharacteristically reflective of the work’s emphasis on natural and organic topics.
In many ways, this group is the perfect setting to examine this particular music. The bandleader himself is no novice to expressing natural elements through sound, as this is the fourth of his such releases after 1997’s Water, 2006’s Air, and 2016’s Fire. Nor is he a stranger to mixing various tones to paint a picture. After all, the NEA Jazz Master is a prominent figure on one of the most musically diverse (and arguably best) albums of all time, Miles Davis’ On the Corner, the influence of which is readily apparent on “Galaxy”. And that is not even getting into how Liebman’s masterwork Lookout Farm or the hundreds of other recordings to his credit guide the current one.
That said, however, Earth is truly a collaborative effort as each of the band’s members shine throughout. Given its complexity, it often seems like the quintet – Liebman on soprano sax, pianist Bobby Avey, windplayer Matt Vashlishan, drummer Alex Ritz and bassist Tony Marino – is attempting to disguise itself as a much larger ensemble. The collective is simultaneously tight, expressive, and inventive. While their three preceding releases presented interesting approaches to jazz standards, classical pieces, and originals, Earth feels like Expansion’s most fully realized work to date.