The Importance Of Keeping The Same Band Members

WHY A STEADY BAND – Lieb explains the importance of keeping the same band members

I wrote the following after a good run of work with my regular working quartet during the fall of 2010. Many thoughts that I have discusses in writings through the years about being a bandleader and what that entails are summarized here.

This fall has seen my regular working quartet hitting pretty hard in the U.S., something which is a rarity these days. You can see from the itinerary in the last newsletter that we made some stops on the West Coast and in the New England area. Also, the DL Big Band had a few hits and my band is the rhythm section for that group also. As a capper, we have a Europe tour coming up in December. So, this is quite a nice run which with constant playing inevitably opens musical doors both as a group and individually. In essence the machine has a chance to get oiled and run full throttle. This flurry of activity has lead me to re-think why it has always been a top priority to maintain the same personnel throughout my career. In this case it has been nearly twenty years with bassist Tony Marino and guitarist Vic Juris and ten with drummer Marko Marcinko.

In fact, I have had only three other steady groups in a 36 year period which in the jazz business is rather unusual.

I formed the Dave Liebman Group after Quest (Richie Beirach, Ron McClure, Billy Hart) which took up most of the 1980s. The original formulation was alongside Tony and Vic, Jamey Haddad on drums/percussion and Phil Markowitz on piano/ keyboards. My initial concept was to play more programmatic, written music than previously with Quest. I also wanted to delve more into odd meters and rhythm in general, in light of the emphasis during the Quest period where the material focused so much on the harmonic language that Richie and I developed over the decades. In 1997, the piano departed and a few years later Haddad left for Paul Simon’s gig, so Marko came aboard. With the absence of the keyboard, Vic Juris had to seriously step up to the plate, which he has more than accomplished. In fact I have never heard a musician grow more than Vic did in these decades. He is serious, hard working and full of talent. And as a human being, Vic is the nicest person to be around as well. 

With the departure of Markowitz I directed the music towards a freer harmonic and more open rhythmic concept.

Repertoire-wise this meant a lot of time/no changes formats, rubato and occasional odd meter. But the primary emphasis was definitely towards the conversation taking place between the guitar and myself, rather than purely soloistic. Now in 2010, we have been moving into a more color oriented stage, meaning increased use of sound and ambiance. Tony is now playing exclusively electric bass; I am only playing soprano (harkening back to the long hiatus I took from the tenor between 1980 and 1995) and Vic is all over the place sonically speaking. The three of us are using a variety of pedals and effects with Marko employing hand percussion instruments along with the drums.

One could say that an emphasis on atmosphere is where we are at present.

Considering the material itself over the years, I think it is quite clear to anyone who has followed my development (and I would venture to say the following is more or less true of most artists), that what you play near the beginning of your career forms the foundation for everything after that. Of course it is juggled around and transformed, but the basic sound that one hears at the commencement of creative work seems to more or less form the basis of an artist’s entire oeuvre. Although from my generation onwards (growing up musically in the ‘60s and career-wise in the ‘70s), the jazz repertoire became much more eclectic than previously using a wider variety of idioms and styles rather than the customary blues, rhythm and standard tunes, the fact remains that you are what you are musically.

One could say that even in the case of Miles Davis who on the surface traversed many styles over forty years, common stylistic aspects remained throughout his life. There is a certain “essence” that usually appears in its raw form at the beginning, probably without much cognizance or sophistication, but very real nonetheless. The challenge for a long artistic life is how to refine that essence and transform it over the years so it remains fresh and vital. In more than a few ways the music I have played with the present Dave Liebman Group over the past twenty years is quite similar to the material on my first recording as a leader on ECM titled “Lookout Farm” (1973).

 DL Group at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

Back to the subject, the most obvious reason for maintaining the same personnel is that time spent together both on and off the bandstand builds trust and confidence. Musically this means that whatever one plays, you know it is real and not a false or selfish gesture.

You accept what your mates play as the best they can do at the time and move on from there. In other less permanent situations, a moment of doubt may surface as to why someone played something. Did it happen because of musical reasons or personal ego or other extraneous factors? Granted that great musicians can come together on a one night or short term basis and create some interesting music. But when a band has a history it’s apparent, certainly to the listener without them necessarily being consciously aware of it. They feel something beyond the ordinary happening. There is one more important reason for keeping steady personnel. In retrospect it was through observing Miles Davis as a leader that I learned the following.

The main task when leading a band is to recognize in your sidemen what they do best. One must of course first realize what you personally do best musically. I would imagine by the time one is a bandleader they would know that about themselves.

You can’t expect others to latch on to something if you don’t have it well formed at least in your own head, if not on paper. This “knowing oneself” is a purely objective exercise …there is no “would’ve,” “could’ve” or “should’ve” …no conditional tense please!! Just objective observation. Then, because jazz is the most democratic of all music, you have to find partners who can and want to enhance what you hear. 

With Miles, it seemed that he could hear what he wanted out of you even if the so-called “audition” was musically totally unrelated to what his music was at the time. He heard Dave Holland with a singer playing standards; he heard Al Foster playing bebop with Walter Bishop at a club called the Cellar on 96th Street in New York; he heard me playing with Steve Grossman in a double quartet free jazz gig at the Scene on 46th Street in Manhattan.

What all of us ended up playing with Miles had nothing to do with any of these musical settings. If you think about a lot of Miles’ sidemen, the way they played during their tenure with Miles was never heard again in their future music. 

Once you find these right partners, the leader has to create the circumstances for this combination to blossom and realize the sound in his head. This means several things: keeping the music challenging and exciting in order to pique the interest of your sidemen; finding opportunities to play in order to satisfy the necessity of making a living; and creating a workable social environment since there is hopefully a lot of time spent together touring and recording…if the group is successful which is the obvious objective. When everything is synching up, the music has a chance to go beyond the mundane. This takes a lot of work, good timing and a bit of luck…all factors that go into any successful business undertaking.

Like any long term relationship (marriage being a good metaphor), there are emotional and relational ups and downs which naturally occur. There is also the “boredom” factor, meaning knowing too well how someone reacts to a given musical situation, which can potentially take away from what true improvisers look for on a daily basis, playing something new and fresh, not by rote. True jazz musicians are very sensitive to mechanical playing. We are supposed to be in the moment without a past or future, in the now. Too much predictability can bring the level of the musical discourse down. We try to achieve a balance between the expected and the surprise gesture.

Accepting the inevitability of at least some repetitious playing when you are with the same musicians for awhile is important. Ultimately with the right people, the group moves beyond, concentrating rather on the positive which is something played that is fresh music. With patience, time will take care of these matters. When that happens there is a feeling of accomplishment, of having passed through something together which strengthens the band and the music. It goes without saying that finding the right people to fit into this scenario is no mean feat!!

For me, it was the power of their steady groups that artists like Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Blakey and others from that era had going which most affected me most as a listener. I urge musicians to do their best to sustain long term relationships. The rewards are worth it. To my guys, I say thanks for the loyalty and trust you have given me.