By Jim Hynes, Glide Magazine
In the late ‘90s renowned composer and saxophonist Dave Liebman embarked on a project to musically interpret the four natural elements – water, air, fire, and now Earth, marking the culmination of the 4-album opus. Each was recorded with a different supporting unit and Earth, Liebman’s impassioned plea for the planet, (releasing barely two weeks after Trump killed environmental protection for rivers and streams) features his newest ensemble, Expansions, a quintet comprised of veterans and young lions. They are Bobby Avery (piano), Matt Vashlishan (wind synth), Alex Ritz (drums) and veteran Tony Marino (bass). NEA Jazz Master Liebman plays evocative soprano sax and wooden recorder. Liebman says, “This recording celebrating different aspects of our planet relies heavily on colors emanating from various digital and sound source equipment used by the keyboard and wind synthesizer. For me on the soprano sax, I am the lone acoustic instrument juxtaposing the old and the new (with the drums in the same zone). Melody and harmony play a lesser role in this kind of music…texture rules.”
First, lest there be any newcomers to Liebman, here is a quick thumbnail. His career has spanned nearly five decades, beginning in the early 1970s as the saxophone/flutist in both the Elvin Jones and Miles Davis Groups (fusion period), continuing as a bandleader since. He has played on over five hundred recordings with nearly two hundred under his leadership and co-leadership. In jazz education, he is a renowned lecturer and author of several milestone books: Self Portrait Of A Jazz Artist, A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody, Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound (translated into multiple languages). In addition to his stints with Miles (On the Corner), he is considered an astute student of John Coltrane, especially on soprano sax and has many recordings attesting to it., 1998’s John Coltrane’s Meditations and 2017’s collaborative effort with fellow saxophonist Joe Lovano, Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane, among them. He has also written his autobiography What It Is – The Life of A Jazz Artist (Scarecrow Press). We could go on endlessly but realize that his bands have included noted musicians such as John Scofield, Richie Beirach, Bob Moses, Billy Hart, and others. He is currently teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, New York University, Princeton University and is a guest lecturer at Berklee College of Music. Liebman has consistently placed in the top positions for Soprano Saxophone in the Downbeat, Jazz Times and JazzEd polls since 1973.
The approach to Earth is, to be fair, esoteric, but it’s the results that most matter. The nearly five-hundred compositions that make up Liebman’s musical canon were mostly conceived with the meaning of the piece coming first before the composer delved into the intricacies of songwriting. The process of composing Earth was no different. In this case,. The composer had the idea to compose each track using a method that he refers to as interval selection. Liebman explains, “Each composition has a specific intervallic element. For example, “Concrete Jungle” features the intervals of fourths and fifths, suggesting a city landscape, while “Sahara” incorporates major and minor seconds representing the heat and sun of the desert… This recording centers around the atmosphere created when intervals are played expressively with a melodic contour.”
Close listening of the meshing of acoustic and electronic will inevitably reveal patterns and lines that evoke work of Miles and Trane. The opening “Earth Theme” is an ethereal soundscape is created by the keyboard and wind synthesizers before Liebman makes a stunning signature lone-cry-in-the wilderness entrance on soprano, as if new growth is sprouting. After a bass interlude, major and minor sixths cascade down like the spewing of rocks and lava in “Volcano/Avalanche” following some dissonant electronics, which represent the Earth expelling its contents from the gut of the planet per Liebman’s incendiary solo. The quintet performs with unbridled power and intensity on this track. Ritz is particularly explosive on the drums, with Bobby Avery providing otherworldly improvisation and accompaniment using synthesized sound. This movement brilliantly depicts a theme of this album, a world where the organic and the technological must coexist.
A mysterious jungle-like percussion and flute interlude, replete with wind synths leads into “Sahara” , inspired by the composer’s trip to Mauritania in the Western Sahara some years ago. Liebman notes “The desert landscape is unique in its bleakness but powerful in its consistency.” The ensemble reflects the musical imagery of the Sahara and its bleak, vast solitude with Liebman’s stunning soprano airy and compelling as the ensemble supports sensitively and harmonically with judicious use of electronics and percussion. Toward the end, Liebman is in full flight before surrendering calmly to the barren landscape. A lovely soprano interlude precedes “Grand Canyon/Mt. Everest” with Liebman’s soprano conveying utter awe of these magnificent creations.
A drum interlude leads into “Concrete Jungle,” naturally frenetic with intervals of fourths and fifths, suggesting a city landscape. Avery’s piano work here is impressively inventive, mirroring the chaotic theme as is the layered interplay between Liebman’s soprano and his wooden recorder. A stark piano interlude appropriately leads into “Dust to Dust,” an ethereal composition with strong dialogue between Liebman and Vashlishan as Avery comps on Fender Rhodes, Ritz adds the mysterious drum patterns and Marino takes a wild excursion on bass. A foreboding wind synth interlude introduces the complex fusion patterns of “Galaxy” and the album closes reprising the “Earth” theme. This is masterful imaginative music, perhaps even a side of Liebman you haven’t heard. Take it all in and get lost. The music will evoke incredible imagery.