When I was living with Tim Ries, we would sometimes talk musicians, mostly sax players. We’d talk about Tim’s first years in New York, often along with Billy Drummond or Dave Rickenburg, an NYC vet who used to take lessons from Joe Henderson. It was great hearing all of the stories about the musicians in that era, about the guys who were the flavor of the week in Downbeat who nobody knows now, how the neighborhood that Lincoln Center is in now used to be un-walkable at night. Once in a while we’d talk about older musicians, and how they’d used to be on the scene, like Ted Curson, who used to host the jam at the Blue Note, or Eddie Gomez, who Tim played with as he was younger.
However, in all of those conversations, no man was ever spoken of with such reverence as Dave Liebman. “He’s the reason I came to New York”, said Tim. It’s easy to see why. He’s a saxophonist’s dream, a true theoretical and pedagogical thinker. I only got to meet him once, at a big band show at Birdland that both Tim and Rickenburg were playing on. Liebman was happy to talk after the show, and about music. He was interested in what Tim was doing at the time, and talked about some music as well. Of course, on the bandstand, he was fantastic, playing only soprano over his original big band music. I’ve never seen someone so comfortable on his own tunes before. He took his time with every solo, waiting for the right moment to play every phrase.
Talking to him afterwards and listening to his language, something was made extremely clear to me that I’d been expecting for a long time: he is one of the last tenor saxophonists of his era who really loves Coltrane. Everybody sounds like Coltrane, but Liebman still loves him. Even after the show, Liebman felt obligated to describe some of Coltrane’s thinking to Tim and me, although I’m sure Tim has heard the speech many times(not to mention he probably doesn’t need any more reasons to love Coltrane). Liebman was adamant that Coltrane was the first person to think about things like patterns and harmonic exercises, that he was not only one of the great players, but the greatest practicer in terms of stamina and ingenuity.
This is an important point, one that goes unnoticed these days. Everybody loves the greats, Bird, Coltrane, Freddie, Herbie. Sometimes, serious Flavors of the week come up, and people all profess loving them, too. But how many of the on the beaten path musicians are really loved anymore? How many people who casually state that they love Bird really know his language? How many Coltrane fans can really deal with his language, or have intimate knowledge of his entire career? I don’t think that we need a whole generation putting Coltrane under a microscope, but I do think that people like Liebman are necessary to remind us that we can always dig deeper.
This commitment came through in spades when I saw Liebman’s duet with his long time collaborator Richie Beirach at the Cornelia Street Cafe. Dave’s commitment to Coltrane’s language and Richie’s to McCoy’s stood out like a sore thumb. I harp again and again, Everybody these days sounds like Coltrane, everybody tries to sound like McCoy, but you never hear the genuine article. Here, we had two people who have completely absorbed(and continue to unconditionally love, which is important) that language, and intersperse it with their own harmonic language and other personal touches.
Their relationship played a part as well. Whenever you see people who have been playing together for forty years, it definitely does something to the music. In a duo setting, the interaction is always high, but with these two being hypersensitive to each other’s language(a language that they mostly built together on the bandstand), it gave the music an intensity and precision that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.
Here, Liebman didn’t seem as comfortable. He seemed much more purposed, though, intent on making meaningful statements rather than relaxing and speaking in his voice. Richie just seemed thrilled to play the gig, and it seemed as if he was showing Liebman things. “See? I’ve been checking THIS out since we last played together! And THIS!” I’d never seen Beirach live, but it made me realize what a pianistic monster he is. He showed more technique than I’ve ever heard on record(not that I’m a connoisseur), in terms of touch and facility. Quite impressive. He used a strange hand positioning too, it seemed, using a flat palm with curved fingers, not worrying about crossing his legs or anything of the sort, and still coming out with a great sound at blinding speeds.
The tunes all came from the bible of Wayne n’ Trane, along with originals from a record called Forgotten Fantasies. Although that record is difficult to find these days, Dave promised that he and Richie would be playing together much more in the near future, with a Quest or Lookout Farm tour, along with some more duo things. It seems like Liebman has a pretty damn good thing worked out with Birdland, especially since winning his NEA award, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them play a few weeks there.
The Jazz nerd in me is always glad to see old partners play together again, especially ones with such history. It’s always great to see two people who really love playing together, even after forty years have passed. It’s becoming a rare thing.
UNBELIEVABLE gig at the Vanguard last night, Bill McHenry, Eric Revis, Andrew Cyrille with special guest Ethan Iverson. I don’t know if I’ll do a full review or not, but believe me, you need to structure your NYC visits around when Cyrille is playing. The only word that fits is master. Maybe grandmaster would work too.
“Touch is technique, and technique is touch.” -Ethan Iverson