Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls
Release date: February 3, 2023
Label: Cellar Music Group

Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls is a thrilling free jazz outing, this 75-minute set finds the boundless soprano saxophonist in the company of four modern musical masters: trumpeter Peter Evans, pianist Leo Genovese, bassist John Hébert and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Part of the Smalls LIVE Living Masters Series, this recorded set from the famed West Village nightclub showcases the daring virtuosity of one of the most forward-thinking minds in contemporary music, captured in front of an attentive live audience.

The release of Live at Smalls ushers in a new phase for the NEA Jazz Master – one that is focused on free improvisation. Since this live album was recorded in January 2022, Liebman has made a concerted effort to play in a free jazz setting, without the rules and guardrails playing tunes and composed music generally affords. “I have been recording since I was 16 years old,” Liebman reflected. “I have played everything and particularly a lot of the jazz language on over 500 records. I would like to spend this next stage of my artistic life focusing on playing free.”

It’s all very full circle. Liebman has regularly played free throughout his prolific career, though some periods have been more focused on it than others. The most blatant example would be during the loft scene – that golden period in the late 1960’s that has since taken on a bit of a mythical sheen in the modern day. From 1968-69, Liebman had a famous downtown loft with Dave Holland and Chick Corea also living in the loft space. It was during this formative period that they would exclusively play free. “If we played two songs in time it was amazing,” Liebman said with a laugh, adding that they would frequently play for four or five hours at a time without pause, and never calling  tunes, keys or tempos. “John Coltrane’s epic recording, Ascension, was a model for us and still carries the weight of John’s music today.”

Live at Smalls harkens back to that spirit. When the gig was booked, Liebman called four musicians he had played with at different times in varied contexts, but never together as an ensemble. The prospect of working with a new group of musicians was exciting, and served as a catalyst for fresh ideas to be explored on the bandstand. “I knew they could do it. Most musicians love playing this way even if there may be difficulty getting started,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is that somehow when good musicians play like this, they know exactly when to stop and go. These guys played this music magnificently.”

Trumpeter Peter Evans is widely known in experimental and creative music circles for his singular approach to playing and modern improvisation. A master of his instrument, he is a perfect foil for Liebman, as the two of them make up the dynamic front line. Prevalent pianist Leo Genovese, whose eclectic 2022 recording credits span Wayne Shorter to The Mars Volta, brings his distinctive touch to the hit, which Liebman described as “very empathetic to whoever he’s playing with”. Rounding out the rhythm section is respected bassist John Hébert, who can be heard on Liebman’s prior release, Trust and Honesty (Newvelle), as well as powerhouse drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “When you are improvising without a sketch, you get to hear someone play in a deeper way than if they had the music in front of them,” commented Liebman. “Tyshawn handles this all in a very constructive and compositional style.”

Live at Smalls is certainly unorthodox for a commercial release. There are no true tunes and the split into three parts is arbitrary. It’s a 75 minute set, best enjoyed straight through as a visceral experience. While this type of music is often deemed as demanding for the casual listener, Liebman maintained that it doesn’t have to be. “There are no rules, which also means the listener’s experience can be extremely liberating.” The resulting work is an expansive sonic exploration, which cements Liebman’s standing as one of the most creative voices in modern music.

LEONID AUSKERN
JAZZ QUAD
Read the review in Russian here.

LUDOVICO GRANVASSU
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
Featured on playlist here.

STEPHEN GRAHAM
MARLBANK
"There is rarely anything as thrilling - when it works and it does here - as a long, free (idiomatically) group improvisation." Review here and featured as the Track of the Week here.

TROY COLLINS
POINT OF DEPARTURE
“More than just a confirmation of Liebman’s standing as a leader in creative improvised music, Live at Smalls is a salient document that captures the timelessness of spontaneous collaborative creation amongst disparate generations of musicians.” Read the review here.

SIMON ADAMS
JAZZ JOURNAL
This 72-minute set is best enjoyed straight through, as a visceral experience.” Read the review here.

MIKE JURKOVIC
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"A newly minted nugget in the Smalls' Live Living Masters Series, Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls takes its place in the larger spectrum of ideas which does exist if only we would open ourselves to the infinite possibilities that these musicians give themselves to as a matter of course, with a genuine respect and enthusiasm which makes performances like this one not only possible, but memorable." Read the review here.

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
Listed among 10 Albums You Need To Know: February 2023 here.

STEPHEN GRAHAM
MARLBANK
"..surely this is one of his greatest recent achievements." Read the review here.

PHIL FREEMAN
BURNING AMBULANCE
Read the full interview here.

C. MICHAEL BAILEY
WILD MERCURY RHYTHM
"National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master saxophonist Dave Liebman is not new to 'free jazz.'" Read the review here.

LANCE LIDDLE
BEBOP SPOKEN HERE
"..there are moments that require close concentration, which is rewarded, when it becomes clearer how the musicians are relating to each other’s contribution." Read the review here.

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICAL MEMOIRS
"You will hear and enjoy lots of freedom in this delightful and masterful recording." Read the review here.

DANIEL SPICER
JAZZWISE
"..it never takes long for the music to find its way into deep swing..” Read the complete review in the April 2023 issue of Jazzwise Magazine. 

GEORGE GRELLA
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD
“The playing is often brilliant..” Read the review in the March 2023 issue here.

FILIPE FREITAS
JAZZ TRAIL
"..Liebman probes complex melodies that expand and contract across multiple rhythms." Read the review here.

LAURENCE DONOHUE-GREENE
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD
Listed under Recommended New Releases in the May 2023 issue here.

RAUL DA GAMA
THE WHOLE NOTE
"Furious fluid dynamics occur, one breathless variation to the next. The energy is unrelenting." Read the complete review here.

GEORGE HARRIS
JAZZ WEEKLY
“Legendary sax man Dave Liebman stretches out for three songs at a gig at Smalls back in 2022." Read the review here.

TED PANKEN
DOWNBEAT
Read the Blindfold test in the May 2023 issue of DownBeat Magazine.

MODERN DRUMMER
Read the full feature here.

EDITOR
TAKE EFFECT
"Liebman brings a wealth of experience to this project, and amazingly these lengthy pieces were the first time these 4 played together, which is further proof of their unparalleled talents. " Read the complete review here.

NICK OSTRUM
THE SQUARE EAR
"He can ride a melody and hit those toe-tapping strides. " Read the full review here.

JULLIET
JAZZ MAGAZINE
Read article in Spanish here.

STEVE FEENEY
THE ART FUSE
Check out the full line up on this best of 2023 list here.

ALBERTO BAZZURRO
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Listening, as we like to say in these cases, is salvific and almost therapeutic." Read the complete review in Italian here.

THIERRY DE CLEMENSAT
PARIS MOVE
"Everything about Dave Liebman is fascinating, even his way of attacking the notes with his saxophones, making them actors, engaging in dialogues, a story to be experienced on stage." Check out the full review here.