By Richard Kamins, Step Tempest

Been over two decades since saxophonist and NEA Jazz master Dave Liebman began his musical exploration and interpretation of the four Natural Elements. Starting in 1997 with “Water” (featuring Pat Metheny, Billy Hart, and Cecil McBee), then moving on to “Air” (a 2006 duo with computer whiz Walter Quintus), and then 2016’s “Fire” (with Kenny Werner, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette.  Liebman brings the cycle to a close with “Earth” (Whaling City Sounds), a 14-piece suite that features his touring and recording group Expansions. The leader brings his signature soprano saxophone plus wooden recorder; the group consists of Matt Vashlishan (Wind synth, reeds), Bobby Avey (piano, keyboards), Alex Ritz (drums), and longtime associate Tony Marino (electric bass).

Liebman constructed this band to be an electro-acoustic outfit and no one exemplifies that more than Vashlishan. having seen the group in concert, it’s impressive how he blends the wind synth in the more traditional sounds of piano, bass, and drums.  One can hear that in all its glory on “Volcano/Avalanche” where his instrument creates the former and Liebman’s darting soprano lines the other.  Marino’s bass and Ritz’s drums keep the music from falling apart as well as add to the energy needed to tell the story.  “The Sahara” is introduced by the percussion/ wooden flute “Interlude“, complete with wind sounds from the synth and bass. The evocative soprano sax lead then blends with the wind synth to push the song into a different mood. Avey’s electric piano solo over the powerful drum playing stands out.

There are amazing moments throughout.  The short “Interludes” not only serve as solo spotlights (in the instances above and below, an augmented duo) but also introduce the following track. Avey’s piano spot may remind some of a waterfall or a gentle rain outside the window while Vashlishan’s seems other-worldly but not unlike  the synth work of the late Joe Zawinul.  Ritz’s spot is conversational while Marino plays a chordal riff with the drummer keeping time.  Liebman’s soprano solo “Interlude” is evocative of standing on a ridge and leads into “Grand Canyon/ Mt. Everest“, a musical appreciation of these natural wonders with each voice stepping forward and then back into the ensemble in a slow procession that compels the listener to sit and let the music unfold, not to rush to move forward but take in the beauty of creation.

The music moves back from its close examination of the natural wonders of “Earth” to its place in the greater Cosmos.  The album closes with “Galaxy“, a raucous, funk-driven piece that has the feel of the music Miles Davis created for the “On The Corner“.  Marino and Ritz really drive this piece with Avey’s chattering keys, Vashlishan’s squealing wind synth, and Liebman’s  fiery soprano lines fluttering over the top of it.  Midway through the piece, Avey steps out with just Ritz supplying the pulse before Marino reenters and pushes them harder.  The ends then come in and help to take the piece into a short restatement of “Earth Theme“, bringing the project back to a close but also serving as an invitation to reenter this music’s rich atmosphere.

The pictures that Dave Liebman Expansions creates on “Earth” come into clearer focus each time you listen.  This is music that connects you to the natural world in unexpected ways, asking one to pay closer attention to the majesty of what is all around you, impelling you to go outside away from the daily hustle if only for a short walk in the woods or by a river or near a pond or up to a mountain top.

For more information, go to Dave Liebman Expansions is appearing at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme CT on 2/22 and then at Dizzy’s Club NYC on 2/28-29.  Click on the names for more information.

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