Dave Liebman: A New York Story
Having been around the recording industry since the early '70s, Liebman has experienced its many changes firsthand, and adapted his own viewpoint as to what the goal of recording has become. "The record business has basically dissolved, in terms of the old model, and now it's kind of like a kamikaze mission: hit and run," Liebman asserts. "The point of recording for me is two-fold, and one is hopeful: hopefully it'll sell and everyone can make a little money. And even before this crisis, it was a farfetched idea, because cats like me didn't make a lot of money. But the other important thing for me is to catalog the music and to be done; to say, 'I did that, and it's done and it's the best I could at that moment.' Because recording is the top of the food chain, as far as performance goes, there's rehearsal, there's jam sessions, there's live, and then there's recording, which brings out the most perfection and the best in you, and demands that you come up to the highest level.
"Live is the most challenging of all because you can't correct your mistakes, but my point is that recording is a mirroryou're under a microscope, and a microphone will catch everything, and that's not true when you're playing live," Liebman continues. "And that's a good thing. You try things; you're hanging, you're in a club, you don't have a plan or an agenda, you're just playing, and that's great. But, on the other hand, an artist should be able to pull his shit together when he has to. And it's like if I'm gonna give a speech, I can't get up there and ramble for two hours; I've gotta have my good 30 minutes together. I think that's a skill that helps one grow as a musician. Obviously, playing live is essential and has to be happening, and there's a certain built-in contradiction in recording anything. Jazz is about live and about the moment, and here we are magnifying the moment forever on a plastic disc, for someone to hear a thousand miles away, 10 or 20 years from now. That kinda contradicts everything jazz is about, because the next minute will be completely different.
"In the end, especially now, because of technologyeven in the '60s you could still take tape and cut itnow you can replace a breath with another breath and nobody knows the difference," says Liebman."I think the only real way to know how somebody plays is to hear them live in front of your eyes, because even a live recording can be doctored. To tell you the truth, I don't trust anybody, because I know that if I can fix something by the push of a button, or my engineer can do it, I am doing it. My ethics aren't that big; hey, man, if I can fix it I'm gonna fix it. So I know that probably 95 percent of what you're hearing is not what it was. That's a generality, but somewhere in the high percentage points. If you're hearing a so-called 'record' now, you can be pretty sure that it's not what they played. If it's live, less so; but it's still possible that you're not really hearing what they played. Auto-tuningyou look good, you feel good, it's ridiculous, really. And that's why live, for jazz, remains the main game. It is the final proving point for somebody who's sitting 10 feet away from you and hearing you play. That's really it, in the end.
"If I can make a fix I will," Liebman concludes, "if I've got another take from another day that sounds the same. And another thing you do if you're doing a live recording is you get to the gig in the afternoon and do a couple tunes then, because the sound will be the same at night. The big band record, Live / As Always there's a title, "New Vista," that isn't on the CD but is going to be on a DVD of the gig. I remember telling the audience, after we were finished with the performance, 'We're going to take advantage of your presence. The official performance is over, but the first tune was a fuck-up and we're doing it again. The engineers are in place, and I'm taking advantage of that fact. Even though it's midnight, you can take it or leave it, but please be silent.' There is a certain amount of doctoring that I'd do live, but of course, it's much less than you can do in the studio."
Liebman's current group goes back 20 years, but the saxophonist has other musical relationships that go back much further. He's formed a number of significant partnerships with pianists over the years, including Copland, Markowitz and Mike Nock, but his longest-standing friendship dates back to the late '60s with Richie Beirach, his partner in a number of groups including Lookout Farm, Pendulum and Quest, not to mention a series of duo recordings, including the woefully out-of-print Forgotten Fantasies (A&M/Horizon, 1975) and Double Edge (Storyville, 1985), recently reissued by the label, along with two early Quest discsQuest II (1986) and Midpoint (1987)as the double-disc Searching for the New Sound of Be-Bop (2010).
The two share a profoundly deep language, combining Liebman's inherent, post-bop expressionism with Beirach's distinctive blend of jazz harmonies and the classical vernacular of more outward-thinking composers who spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, which garnered Beirach's nickname, "The Code." "Richie is the original root," Liebman explains. "We met in school and jam sessions in Queens. Eventually, he was living in Manhattan and he started hanging out with me. This was 1968-69, and we were very compatible personally and musically, and we've been able to learn from each other for so long. We have a new recordme, Richie and Lee Konitzcoming out in March, and we have a new duo record coming out next September. We're not actually working that much; Richie's in Leipzig [Germany], though he has to retire in another year, when he's 65, and he'll be back here. Up until now, he's only been coming to the States twice a year, so maybe there'll be more opportunity for us to schedule things.
Quest formed in the early '80s, teaming Liebman and Beirach with bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart. The band worked regularly throughout that decade and well into the '90s, and has experienced something of a revival the past couple years, first with its 2005 reunion tour and subsequent album, RedemptionQuest Live in Europe (HATology, 2007), then with Storyville's Searching for the New Sound of Be-Bop (2010), and finally with the group's most recent release, Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (OutNote, 2010).
Along with bassist Cecil McBee, Hart is also a member of Saxophone Summit, which is gearing up for some renewed activity in 2011. "We just came home from Europe," Liebman says, "and we're playing Birdland in New York in February and recordingjust for ourselves at this point. In Europe, we did [Coltrane's] Meditations every night. I do that piece every five years, as well, in November  I did an orchestral version of the suitewhich Gunnar Mossblad, my big band guy, arranged for orchestra at Manhattan School of Musicwhich hopefully will come out. Eighty-five people playing Meditationsman, it was mind-blowing. But on the tour with Saxophone Summit, we did it because it's been 45 years since Trane recorded it November 23, 1965, actually. Every couple years we try to get it happening.
"It's so much fun, and Meditations, man, an hour-and-a-half each night; we did it for six nights in Europe. I love that band: the heaviest guys on their instruments, with the amount of historyCecil's 75, Jabali [Billy Hart]'s 70, and then down to me, [Phil] Markowitz and Joe and Ravi. We're spanning 30 years of jazz history; I mean, the guys I'm playing withjust the rhythm section, let alone me and Joeit's like the history of jazz, and when you get onstage with guys on your own instrument, who play at that level and who are into it like that, with a rhythm section like thatno kids in this rhythm section, man, no young whipsI mean guys who have been doing this for 50 goddamn years... That's an all-star band that I'm the titular leader of, and I just try to get it together, with all the things everybody does.
Liebman also released Five on One (Pirouet), a fine disc with a new group of old friends, called Contact, in 2010Marc Copland, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress and, of course, Billy Hart. "The one common denominator for almost all of my groups is Billy," Liebman says. "Billy is my main drummer." Clearly the work of an egalitarian collective, which did one tour around the time of the recording, hopefully Contact will reconvene again in the future. Even Lookout Farmthe innovative, world-music-informed group that broke Liebman's name as a leader with its eponymous 1974 release on ECMgot back together for a gig at Birdland in 2010 to celebrate its 35th anniversary, though it wasn't recorded and there are currently no plans for future gigs. ("It was supposed to be a Quest gig," Liebman explains, "but Billy had overbooked.") Liebman is also completing a biography, in collaboration with noted author Lewis Porter, to be published in the next couple of years by Scarecrow Press.
Saxophone Summit, from left: Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano
And so, while Liebman suggests things might slow down a bit this year, a quick rundown of his schedule suggests otherwise. "When you go to my website, under 'Groups,' you see the Dave Liebman Group and Big Bandtwo of my own projects," Liebman explains. "You'll see 'Other Groups,' and there's like eight things there. Those are really all my things, and probably will be till the clock runs out. They're all different relationships[Steve] Swallow and [Adam] Nussbaum in We Three, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Marino and Jim Black, called Different But the Same, Saxophone Summit, and various duos with Phil [Markowitz], Marc [Copland], Richie [Beirach]; my game is juggling everything and keeping the calendar organized, but I am very fulfilled. If I go down just playing those 8 to 10 projects plus the European guys I know [Liebman also released Eternal Moments (Bee Jazz) in 2010, a duo record with French pianist Jean-Marie Machado], then I'm in good shape and I'll have plenty of music to play for the rest of my life."
But how does a white, middle-class kid from Brooklyn find his way to the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship? With a legacy like Liebman's, both in his own extensive discography as a leader and on classic albums like Elvin Jones' Live at the Lighthousewhich has been transcribed, in its entirety, by a Norwegian saxophonist and one-time student of Liebman's, Petter Wettreit's really not much of a stretch. But it's particularly important that Liebman's win finally opens what may well be a floodgate of overdue recognition for artists who somehow got lost between the innovations of the '60s and the neocon movement of the '80s. Musicians like Liebman, who grew up in the '60s and began their own innovations in the '70s, ultimately changed the shape of jazz to come; it's just taken a few more decades to realize it and come to terms with it. "The '70s generation was already seeing the result of our initial forays in the way of art, drugs, everythingthe whole lifestyle of us baby boomers born after the war," Liebman says.
"We came first," Liebman concludes, "and by the late '70s, things were already more formalizedand, by the way, more readily available and commercialized. It wasn't as pure. By then, there was fusion to make money; the innocence was already gone then, and that's why you have Spyro Gyra and so on. So what we have is the '70s generation growing up with very clear examplesyou could go and hear Larry Coryell or Weather Reportand you didn't have to search it out, depending on where you lived, and you could see it all because we had already done our work. The truth is, the '70s generation came up and could afford to dance around a little more; but, on the other hand, a certain amount of water under the bridge meant the innocence was gone. How do you play it straight and really find the way that is amenable to your own personality, depending on who you are? I really never thought about being an artistabout art for art's sakeit was just what we did.
Jean-Marie Machado/Dave Liebman, Eternal Moments (Bee Jazz, 2010)
Quest, Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (OutNote, 2010)
Quest, Searching for the New Sound of Be-Bop (Storyville, 2010)
Dave Liebman Big Band, Live / As Always (MAMA, 2010)
Richie Beirach/Dave Liebman/HR Big Band, Quest for Freedom (Sunnyside, 2010)
Contact, Five on One (Pirouet, 2010)
Dave Liebman Group, Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010)
Dave Liebman/Michael Stephans, Nomads (ITMP, 2009)
Dave Liebman/Pendulum, Mosaic Select 32: Live at the Village Vanguard (Mosaic, 2008)
Dave Liebman/Roberto Tarenzi/Paolo Benedettini/Tony Arco, Dream of Nite (Verve, 2007)
David Liebman Group, Blues All Ways (OmniTone, 2007)
Mike Nock/Dave Liebman, Duologue (Birdland, 2007)
David Liebman, Lieb Plays Wilder (Challenge, 2005)
Dave Liebman/Phil Markowitz, Manhattan Dialogues (ZOHO, 2005)
Dave Liebman/Ellery Eskelin, Different But the Same (HATology, 2005)
Michael Brecker/Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano, Saxophone Summit (Telarc, 2004)
Dave Liebman Group, Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003)
Dave Liebman/Richie Beirach, Mosaic Select 12 (Mosaic, 2004)
Lars Danielsson, Far North (Dragon, 1994)
John Scofield, Who's Who? (Arista/Novus, 1980)
Steve Swallow, Home (ECM, 1980)
Dave Liebman, Lookout Farm (ECM, 1974)
Miles Davis, On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)
Elvin Jones, Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1972)
John McLaughlin, My Goals Beyond (Ryko, 1970)