by DAVID LIEBMAN
You’ve heard the expression that there is an “art of listening”. Though on the surface it would seem that to enjoy music should be an effortless experience, when you listen to my music it is admittedly not that easy to appreciate without some prior experience. For sure, the energy will be obvious and to some listeners possibly seem a bit aggressive, but that is an undeniable part of my playing no matter what style or situation. I will try here to make sense of my music so that you can enjoy it to the fullest.
What you are hearing in any small group jazz setting is in essence a conversation between several individuals who hopefully have a history of communication and a shared language. The subject matter changes with each composition and each performance begins the process anew. Every piece inherently contains a musical puzzle to be worked out by the players spontaneously. What we, the musicians do with a piece of music is to apply our knowledge and technique tempered by one’s emotional state to explore the given musical challenge. These come in the form of rhythmic, harmonic, sonic, melodic and structural questions. Of course, we have preconceived and habituated answers based on previous experience and practice, but the overriding goal is to be as spontaneous as possible without relying on the past or thinking about the future. In other words, always “being there” in present time!!
In the final analysis it is the process which you, the listener, observes and to my mind is the crux of the whole matter. Just as in everyday life, when a group of individuals meet to solve common problems, each with his or her own expertise, it is the joy of mutual discovery that can be so uplifting and inspiring to witness or be involved in. What constitutes a “great” performance from a merely good one is when the group reaches beyond collective agreement into magic and even a spirituality which is communicated to the listener. Just as in real life, these moments can be rare, which is what keeps musicians going from performance to performance over years and years.
My Musical Creed
To go a bit more in depth, I will describe the main tenets of my musical philosophy. In the overall picture, I think of the making of music(and any art in general) as an attempt to balance three things, which can conveniently be remembered by the fact that they all begin with the letter H: hand, head and heart. The hand represents the technical mastery of an art form and all that suggests-primarily instrumental and musical expertise. The head refers to the task of knowing about the music-how it is constructed. The heart, which puts it all together is of course the emotional, psychological and spiritual facets of the artist-in other words the core personality of the individual. For me, music must include these three aspects in some relationship to be fully satisfying.
Music must also include in some proportion, the five elements which make up the overall structure. There are the traditional melody, harmony and rhythm, but also form and color. By form I mean the overall architecture of the music. For example, it may be compositional such as a twelve bar blues, AABA song structure, or the form of one’s solo from high to low points of tension and release. Even the sequence of songs in a live performance or on a CD are matters of form. Similar to a frame for a painting or punctuation in prose writing, form constitutes the overall shape and structure of a work. Color implies the sound of the music meaning how the specific instruments are used individually as well as collectively in the ensemble to create a texture. One might consider color as the general ambiance (as in the French meaning atmosphere) of music. In the last few decades with the use of electronics, color has played a major role in what you hear. What these five elements mean to me as an artist, outside of the technical aspects, can be compared to how a painter uses his color palette or a poet uses language. My interest is in exploring these elements, sometimes together, other times separately, in order to discover more subtle ways to use them to make a personal and coherent musical statement. Note the use of the word “personal” which is of paramount importance to me. That means to be oneself in any given setting.
The final concept of relevance is that I am an unabashed eclectic, meaning interested in many different musical idioms. I trace this back to my formative years, the 1960s, when I was exposed to all styles of music which were more readily available then in previous times to any interested listener. It was not uncommon for me to listen to Coltrane, Hendrix, Bartok and Shankar over the course of one day. I was attracted to many diverse areas of music and when I began to construct my own musical landscape in the 1970s(after my apprenticeship period with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis), I wanted to express myself in all these styles and their many combinations. You could call this “fusion” in the true sense of the word.
The Music Itself
With this introduction to my aesthetic, let me guide you through the Liebman repertoire over the years. Though the specific material itself may vary from performance to performance or on recordings, these categories are what I have spent my time on. But please remember-the overriding goals are spontaneity balanced with order, entertainment with elucidation, control with emotion.
1 – Repertoire: The Legacy
Jazz musicians like the classical players have a standard repertoire. These are the works through which one learns the language as performed and written by the masters of the art. By extension, repertoire means finding contemporary material written by others (possibly not in the jazz field) and conceiving an adaptation that will both be true to the song as well as one’s own musical vision. In other words, “playing the standards” for me means individualizing known material in a way suitable to my personal style and taste. The material can come from any source, for example Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, Coltrane’s “India”, the Disney theme “Beauty and the Beast” or as I did in the 70s on a recording(Sweet Hands-A&M/Horizon) the Beatles’ “Within You, Without You”. Musically, I may change the harmony through new or expanded chords, the rhythm by tempo change or using a different meter than the original(5/4 rather than 4/4); inserting a “vamp”(repetitive pattern) built upon some part of the tune or newly invented; even reworking the melody to fit a new harmony; or combinations of these ideas. In essence, the primary musical challenge in playing repertoire is more of arranging, rather than pure original composing. As is apparent in the next genre, the original tune. Another point to note is that it takes a certain level of maturity and experience to take classics that are undeniably linked to a great artist or genre and attempt to personalize them. In any case, the result of playing repertoire is that hopefully, the listener will enjoy the transformation of something relatively known into a personal vehicle for exploration. In other words the familiar is reborn!
2 – The Original Jazz Composition
Here is where the composer and improviser meet head on. I write songs for myself to play on, so each tune has within it some musical challenge which attracts me personally. As mentioned earlier, this problem solving process is essential and it is the original composition which best exemplifies a particular musician’s interests. This music may reflect the ongoing challenge of improvising coherent melodies across moving (and for me) usually complex harmonies. Or to play in a stationary key in a way that suggests other harmonic movement. (This modal and pedal point style is described in detail in my book “A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Melody and Harmony”/Advance Music). It is the eternal cross all jazz musicians bear (whether admitted or not) which is “how did Bird, Trane, Miles, etc. do it?” Essentially, this “playing the changes” is what keeps many jazz musicians eternally humble!!
With my present group (since 1991), there has been the further exploration of playing in odd time signatures, meaning not in the standard 4/4 or 3/4 pulse. Of course there is for me the autobiographical element of my originals which are often inspired by people, places, events, emotions, etc. This adds a personal element which hopefully gives the listener more insight into the soul of the artist. Almost every tune of mine has a story.
3 – Free Jazz
The word “free” can imply (and may sound like) chaos-a kind of anything goes attitude. But returning to my description of the five musical elements, it is this part of the music where color and form are most explored. You might hear sounds emanating from the instruments that are out of normal and customary usage, implying an attempt to create a spontaneous and interesting sonic environment. One of the most common textures used is when we launch into a true group dialogue to which all the players are contributing equally, rather than there being one primary soloist. Out of this texture a true acappella (unaccompanied) solo may emerge, or a duet and so on. These freer compositions usually do not have predetermined harmonies, set tempos or bar lengths, so the level of spontaneous interaction and need for the musicians to react to each other seems to intensify in this idiom. In general, musicians feel more “free from” rather than “free of” more conventional structures when playing in this style.
4 – Ethnic-World Music
As part of my eclectic tastes I have always loved world music. In particular the various ways flutes and hand drums are used have fascinated me. In relation to the elements of music, this genre usually includes little or no direct harmony, rather just remaining in one key for each piece(s). This leads to increased emphasis on both rhythm and melody. For me as a wind player, the interest lies in the various ways different cultures use similar expressive devices such as trills, vibrato, vocalization techniques(singing while blowing into a wind instrument), alternate fingerings, portamento(sliding from one note to the next), etc. Because of the stationary key, the adage “less is more” is quite applicable implying that the necessity of melodic variation is at a premium in world music. Finally, there is the very sophisticated rhythmic approach of some world music such as that of India and the Balkan region. As far as communication with the audience, this style is extremely accessible (if not overdone) to even the uninitiated listener. My collection of world flutes come from countries like Armenia, India, Bolivia, Norway, China, Japan, Turkey, Columbia and others. In my present group, drummer Jamey Haddad is an expert hand drummer alongside his jazz playing. He uses various kinds of frame drums, which are basically large tambourines, as well as his own invention, the Hadgini drum that sounds like an electrified tabla. In fact, in my first group “Lookout Farm”(1973-76) tabla player Badal Roy was an essential part of our sound. You can hear the sense of joy, looseness and abandonment when we play in this style.
5 – The Pop Influence
Before I heard any jazz as a young boy in Brooklyn, New York, it was the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s which I listened to, especially Elvis Presley. As I was introduced to soul and funk later on, the music of Earth, Wind and Fire, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and especially Sly Stone interested me, mostly from the rhythmic and feeling points of view. And of course there was the Beatles, Cream and songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkle who were part of my teenage and early adult life socially. Throughout the years I have recorded several times using a pronounced influence from this music and though I have not followed up on current styles too much, you are bound to hear this influence somewhere in the rhythm of what I write.
6 – Contemporary Classical
For over twenty years I had a long relationship with pianist Richard Beirach who is an expert on the classical music of the 20th century, which includes composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives, Schoenberg and many others. We did a lot of work incorporating the harmonic innovations of this period and improvising over it. In the 90s, although this influence is not as pronounced, I still use the harmonic knowledge gained from this period for my own personal soloing as well as compositionally. In fact, I would venture to say that harmony is my strongest area because of the prodigious work I did for so long studying it.
I hope this little primer on what to listen for will increase your appreciation of my music. Like anything in life, when you adopt a position it has both positive and negative aspects. Being an eclecticist means that the listener may find it difficult to focus on one prominent feature of an artist’s style, thereby leading to confusion in identifying what someone’s core values are. On the other hand, when you hear someone like me over years there can be a lot of interest because of the variety. In some ways, I think of my music as a picture show, a kind of moving travelogue of impressions. In any case, all of these words mean little if the feeling of the music which someone plays doesn’t go right to your heart, beyond any description. I hope that in listening to me, both the heart and the head are stimulated.
Following is a selected discography as a leader which exemplify these categories:
1 – Repertoire – Double Edge-‘85/Homage to Coltrane-‘87/West Side Story-Today-‘90/Classic Ballads-‘91/Setting the Standard-‘92/Besame Mucho-‘93/Miles Away-‘94/Return of the Tenor-‘96’/Meditations-’97/Monk’s Mood-’99/A Walk in the Clouds (Liebman Plays Puccini)-’01/The Unknown Jobim-’01
2 – Original Jazz Compositions – Pendulum-‘78/Doin’It Again-‘79/If They Only Knew-‘80/Timeline-‘89/Quest,Quest II,Midpoint,Of One Mind/80s(all with group Quest)
3 – Free Jazz – Open Sky-‘72/Spirit in the Sky-‘73/Spirit Renewed-‘82/Trio + One-‘88/The Seasons-’92
4 – Ethnic/World – Sweet Hands-‘75/The Blessing of the Old Long Sound-’89
6 – Pop – Lighten Up-‘76/What It Is-‘79/Energy of the Chance-’87
7 – Classical – Dedications-‘79/Chant-‘80/Classique-‘91/Graphic Reality-’94
8 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Time Immemorial – The Tree – One of a Kind
The following recordings contain parts of many of these categories mixed together:
Lookout Farm – ‘73/Drum Ode-‘74/Picture Show-‘85/Voyage-‘95/New Vista-‘97/Water-Giver of Life-‘98