Solal & Liebman Unite in France

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By the time Dave Liebman first made his mark in the early 1970s, as the saxophonist and flutist in Miles Davis’ ensemble and a leader of the seminal fusion band Lookout Farm, Martial Solal had been a reigning pianist in the vibrant Paris scene for more than 20 years.

Since then, each has worked in a dizzying array of formats with many of the leading jazz musicians from around the world—setting standards of wit and wizardry that few have matched. But until recently, the two jazz titans had never collaborated.

Solal, 90, and Liebman, 71, have joined forces for a duo effort, Masters In Bordeaux (Sunnyside). The album constitutes a deep dive into the art of the extemporaneous, recorded in concert at Château Guiraud in Sauternes, France, on Aug. 4, 2016.

While the album documents what was only the third night of joint music-making for the two musicians—the first two nights had been at the Sunset Sunside Jazz Club in Paris the preceding December—the resulting colloquy reflects an encounter of kindred souls.

“It felt like I was meeting an old friend,” Solal said.

The personal rapport was not a surprise; both are musicians of good humor and their collaboration, Liebman said, was a “family affair,” brokered by saxophonist Jean-Charles Richard, a sometime student and colleague of his who is also Solal’s son-in-law. But the musical rapport took a bit longer to completely jell.

Liebman set the ball rolling by sending Solal recordings of his performances with pianist Richie Beirach, a member of Lookout Farm with whom the saxophonist performs duos to this day. The recordings, perhaps, were superuous: Solal, whose experience stretches back to associations with Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt, said that Liebman’s reputation preceded him.

“I knew his work; everyone does,” Solal said. “He has all the qualities you want in a musician.”

Liebman also listened to Solal’s records, which did not prepare him for the Frenchman’s freewheeling attitude. “When I got to the stage with him,” Liebman said, “it was as if I had never heard the records, because of the fact of surprise.”

Surprise, in fact, is Solal’s stock-in-trade. Always among the most mercurial of pianists, his encounter with Liebman found him in a particularly inspired mood—his ideas, at times purposefully oblique and fragmented, cascading with such force that even the saxophonist, surely one of the most inventive of musicians, was at first slightly overwhelmed.

“I was thrown by his spontaneity,” Liebman said. “It’s up my alley and in jazz we’re supposed to treasure those moments, but the first time we played the two sets at the club, I was like, ‘How am I going to hang in there with this guy?’ I’m playing ‘All The ings You Are’ and ‘Night And Day’—tunes I’ve been playing for years—and my script was different than it’s ever been.”

Solal, meanwhile, found Liebman himself to be “full of surprises.”

Addressing the surprises, Liebman said, meant negotiating a generational divide. Liebman, the first recipient of the NEA Jazz Master award to emerge from the world of fusion, brought that background to the bandstand. Solal, having cut his teeth with Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke, came steeped in the language of bebop.

Yielding to Solal’s seniority, Liebman helped bridge the divide by giving way on choice of material and, to a degree, how it was treated. Tunes like “All Blues” and “Footprints” were off the table, he said, as were harmonies introduced by the likes of McCoy Tyner.

“I did walk away saying, ‘I just played a whole night without one fourth chord,’” Liebman recalled.

But beyond such matters, the two musicians shared a sensibility. Within the context of the program—six vintage standards, half of them (“What Is This ing Called Love,” “Night And Day” and “All The ings You Are”) from the 1920s and ’30s—both made liberal use of the highly articulated conventions of 20th century classical music.

And while Solal’s irrepressible reinvention of harmony, melody and structure transformed each musical vehicle into a circuitous trip to the edge of a precipice, Liebman found markers warning him of danger ahead.

“His timing is perfect,” Liebman said, “and that was the saving grace because a lot of times I had to depend on the rhythmical aspect of turning corners. That would make you say, ‘Oh, we’re going somewhere,’ because you could hear the rhythm change. So that was a little bit of a crutch for me.”

The crutch, he said, proved useful for a time during the performances at the Sunset Sunside. But by their next meeting, at Bordeaux, Liebman and Solal were moving in lock step—the artists’ common sensibility fostering a synchronicity of thought and action that comes through clearly on the album.

“By then we had forged a little bit of a relationship,” Liebman said. DB



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