Dave Liebman Manifests The Elements

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Dave Liebman’s Earth caps a series of albums inspired by natural elements.

(Photo: Ray Cho)

After 37 years of living in the bucolic scenery of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Dave Liebman and his wife, oboist-composer Caris Visentin Liebman, moved back to the Big Apple, where the reedist with the prodigious output was born 73 years ago. Liebman—who has played on more than 500 recordings—now has a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan from the 22nd floor of an Upper East Side high-rise.

On an early January afternoon, he smiled while surveying the cityscape below. “This is it—it’s exactly what I was trying to capture on ‘Concrete Jungle,’” he said, referring to an uptempo swinger from Earth (Whaling City Sound), the culmination of Liebman’s decades-long series of thematic projects exploring musical manifestations of the four natural elements.

The series kicked off in 1997 with The Elements: Water, Liebman’s collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, and continued with 2011’s Air, an ambient project with the late engineer Walter Quintus. The third installment of the series came in 2018 with Fire, featuring pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. It concludes with Earth, which finds the revered saxophonist-composer-bandleader accompanied by the members of his Expansions ensemble, which has been together since 2013.

“I have a great band,” Liebman said, acknowledging his talented sidemen—pianist-keyboardist Bobby Avey, reed specialist Matt Vashlishan (who plays wind synthesizer on Earth), drummer Alex Ritz and bassist Tony Marino. “They’re the best of their generation because they understand what’s going on in front of them, beside them and in back of them. An artist should be able to see on both sides, while also looking back, and these young cats have that. They’re so fluent in the language of jazz, but they also see things so differently.”

Over time, Liebman has developed a unique vocabulary with his sidemen that has more to do with visualization than notes on the page. “On ‘Concrete Jungle,’ I asked them to capture this scene created out of stone that I see every day out my little dining-room window,” Liebman explained. “On ‘The Sahara,’ I had each of them think of a caravan winding its way through the sand. On ‘Volcano/Avalanche,’ I told Bobby Avey—who has this little red synth with only 61 keys on it—‘Play colors, don’t repeat anything, just keep it fresh and make it colorful.’ Same with Tony. I probably didn’t say more than five words to him about what he should do with the music the whole session. When I’m trying to paint a picture of a volcano or the Grand Canyon or the galaxy and have them thinking about the power and largeness of it all, they know what I’m looking for.”

Glancing down at the concrete jungle from his perch, he added, “People have always said to me, ‘Your music is a lot like a movie score.’ With this album, I would definitely agree. It’s all about color and texture, in the tradition of Penderecki, Stockhausen and all the guys starting with Schoenberg. It’s like the backdrop to the play. We’re all just trying to get the mood of the particular place. So, this record is basically, in the end, all about colors and creating a vibe.”

Liebman’s bandmates seemed eager to jump right into the flames with him. “He has an uncanny ability to look ahead, see goals and make it happen,” said Marino, who exclusively plays electric bass on Earth. “His care for every detail when recording or playing live is inspiring. He is conscious of every second and breath of the performance—musically, timing and audience awareness. He’s always looking for creativity and wants the audience to experience a new trip. From complexity to open and free with every color used in between to find true improvisation—that is the goal with Lieb.”

Liebman grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the son of educators Leo and Frances Liebman. “Our lives were all about education,” he recalled. “My mother laid down the law at 9 years old, when she said, ‘You’re going to play an instrument. What instrument do you want to play?’ And even then I knew I wanted to play the tenor sax because by the mid-’50s that was the main soloing instrument in early rock ’n’ roll—before guitar became so dominant.

“You had Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk’ [featuring Clifford Scott on tenor saxophone] and [Lee Allen’s] ‘Walking With Mr. Lee.’ You also had Plas Johnson playing tenor on Duane Eddy tunes, The Coasters had King Curtis [on ‘Yakety Yak’] and Little Richard had Lee Allen [on ‘Long Tall Sally’]. But before I could get a tenor sax, my mother said I must take two years of piano first, which was the smartest move of all time. You gotta know the piano; it’s just a necessity.”

By age 11, after putting in the requisite two years on piano, he was ready for tenor, but was told by his teacher that he had to complete a full year of clarinet before moving on to saxophone. “I hated clarinet,” he said. “It was dated in my eyes, but I was forced to do it for a year. Finally, by age 12, I got a brand-new, gold, shiny tenor sax, and I ended up playing ‘Lady Is A Tramp’ on it at my own bar mitzvah ... the first time I ever played in public. So, that was the beginning.”

By age 13, he started doing club dates with The Impromptu Quartet, working the Catskills and playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. “We were just teenagers but we knew how to play ‘Anniversary Waltz,’ ‘Tea For Two,’ ‘How High The Moon’ and all that stuff.”

Earlier in his life, any musical ambitions Liebman might have harbored were sidetracked by his ongoing struggles with polio, which he had contracted in 1949, six years before Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine virtually eradicated the disease. “I went to Bellevue for rehabilitation once a month, and they had me pulling sandbags with my leg and all this outdated stuff,” he recalled. “My life basically circulated around polio, because it was always, ‘When’s the next operation gonna be?’ ‘How long do I have to wear this brace?’ ‘What’s gonna happen next?’

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