James Carter, Dave Liebman And The Westerlies On Uncommon Ensembles

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Saxophonists Samuel Blais (left), Donny McCaslin, David Binney and Dave Liebman make up the Four Visions Saxophone Quartet, a group that can trace its lineage back to jazz and the work of classical saxophonist Marcel Mule.

(Photo: Courtesy Sunnyside)

Absent the bass and drums, however, an ensemble loses the defining characteristics of jazz—the rhythm, grooves and feels. To compensate for this, Liebman explained, one of the horns will often generate a pulse by playing an ostinato line beneath the other three horns.

“But it’s a challenge,” he admitted. “The rhythm ends up usually in the lower instrument because of its range. So, in a sax quartet, that’s the baritone sax, and in a brass quartet, the tuba. You’re not likely to hear the soprano or the alto playing rhythmic vamps for others to solo on. And obviously, in classical, there’s little if any improvisation, as there is in jazz. If someone is soloing, that means that there are only three instruments left for harmony. That means triadic movement, and that’s more limited. So, how do you get the harmony across without sacrificing the melody?”

On Four Visions (Sunnyside), a collection of masterful compositions for four saxophones, Liebman explored various answers to this question with his former student from Manhattan School of Music, Samuel Blais, whose early fascination with the four-saxophone sound impelled him to compose for this type of ensemble. The Blais-led Four Visions Saxophone Quartet (with Liebman and saxophonists David Binney and Donny McCaslin) works in tight formation on the album’s 10 originals, carefully treading the thin line between jazz and modern classical music.

“This is a very interesting record because you have four musicians with uniquely different views,” Liebman observed. “I was really impressed with the variety we got in spite of the limitations of working with four saxophones. And we’re not doubling. Doubling is a common tool to change textures very easily by picking up another horn—a soprano player switching to alto, for example.”

According to Liebman, the exploration of rhythm-less ensembles is on the rise among younger players, who are less inclined to see categories—like jazz versus classical—in music and are more likely to cross over.

“The new generation of musician is schooled [across genres] to a person, almost 100 percent,” he added, noting the innovations that arise from this kind of education. “[For instance], odd meters are very popular nowadays. You wouldn’t hear that so much in jazz, but in the classical world they’ve been doing it a long time. So, we’re back to looking at the classical world as a source of beauty and rigorous training for jazz musicians.”

A desire to cross over is what led classical saxophone ensemble PRISM Quartet to commission a composition from Liebman and several other high-profile jazz saxophonists for its 2015 album, Heritage/Evolution, Volume I (Innova). Liebman’s contribution to the album, “Trajectory,” gives the ensemble room to improvise on a 12-tone row, something that traditional classical musicians likely never would undertake.

More and more, however, as genre-defining rules and concerns about musical provenance fall away, modern musicians feel free to experiment with instrumental variety and different sound clusters.

“There are horn ensembles today that are more unorthodox than sax quartets,” Liebman noted. “There are many directions to go in. It’s just a matter of keeping up with your imagination and making it viable.”

LIKE CARTER’S EARLY QUARTET, The Plumbers, The Westerlies first met as student musicians growing up in a musical hotbed—albeit Seattle, rather than Detroit. They met again in New York, where each had moved individually to attend a prestigious music school: Juilliard (trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and trombonist Andy Clausen), Manhattan School of Music (trombonist Willem De Koch) and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (trumpeter Chloe Rowlands).

Though deeply embedded in their respective courses of study—all were jazz majors except De Koch, who studied classical—the group was looking for something more. “We were all wanting to play music that we didn’t have an outlet for in either the jazz or classical worlds,” Clausen said.

The solution was to form an “unorthodox” brass quartet: two trumpets and two trombones that fluently parse the languages of jazz, classical and experimental music. “As far as we know, we’re the only brass quartet out there [doing this],” Clausen added.

He credits composer Wayne Horvitz for “pointing the ensemble in the direction of genre agnosticism.” Horvitz, who taught each of the group members during their youth in Seattle, also produced the ensemble’s first album, Wish The Children Would Come On Home: The Music Of Wayne Horvitz (Songlines). The 16 compositions on the album are alternately affecting, amusing and staunchly impressive: Horvitz hadn’t intended any of these pieces for brass ensemble. (Founding member Zubin Hensler played trumpet on the recording.)

To sidestep the common pitfalls of jazz brass ensembles, The Westerlies write or arrange their own pieces exclusively. “The individual personalities of the players are central to the sound of the group and how we think about the instrumentation,” Clausen explained. “Each player has personal and expressive devices that they use, and a wide range of timbres and colors that they can get out of their instrument. So, when we’re writing arrangements, we know the characteristics of each person’s sound and can write parts that specifically utilize those to create a vibrant repertoire—something compelling that can engage an audience for two hours.”

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