Cover story for Saxophone Journal by Thomas Erdmann (2011)

The problem with trying to encapsulate jazz saxophonist, flutist and composer David Liebman’s musical life, up till now, is one of space; what can be covered and what to leave out.  So prolific an artist, so fertile a mind, so flexible a conceptualist, so seemingly inexhaustible in the improvised possibilities that come out of his many horns, so clear in the manner with which he searches for solutions to musical dilemmas, so erudite in his writings, and so giving to up-and-coming artists and students, there is really no good place to begin.  Founder and Artist Director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz, Liebman is just as enthusiastic about helping the next generation of musicians as he is about his own new and current performance projects.

For proof one need go no further than his website.  Contained within is an incredible trove of inexhaustible writings in which Liebman fully discusses numerous topics of importance to anyone who thinks seriously and deeply about jazz and/or saxophone performance.  For example, related to jazz history Liebman reflects on not only the jazz history he has participated in with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, as just two examples, but also presents his thoughts in a scholarly yet easily readable manner on topics like Joe Allard and Freddie Hubbard.  With regard to pedagogy Liebman offers articles on transcriptions, Coltrane’s use of symmetry, the way to correctly breathe, the basics and basis of warming up on the saxophone, and saxophone mouthpieces, as just a few of many topics covered.  Also included in the collection of materials are writings on thoughts regarding jazz education, criticism versus reviews, the compositional process, and the relevance of big bands.  And this list just scratches the surface.  Even included, to sum up some of Liebman’s thoughts, is Matthew Vashlishan’s master’s thesis on Liebman’s chromatic jazz improvisation conceptions.

Born in Brooklyn on September 4, 1946, Liebman’s first music lessons were studying classical piano at the age of nine.  Starting the saxophone, flute and clarinet at the age of 13, his fire for jazz was lit when he attended a live performance of John Coltrane in a club in New York City.  Private studies with Joe Allard, Lennie Tristano and Charles Lloyd were accompanied by earning a degree in American History from New York University.  In the 1970s Liebman was President of “Free Life Communications,” a New York State Council of the Arts and Space for Innovative Development funded musician’s cooperative that was part of the cutting edge New York musician “loft” scene.  After a year playing with “Ten Wheel Drive,” a well known pioneering fusion band, Liebman secured a chair in drummer Elvin Jones’ group followed by a stint with Miles Davis during the trumpeter’s post-Bitches BrewOn The Corner bands.  Liebman’s role as a leader was first seen in bands such as the “Open Sky Trio” and later in the critically praised forward-thinking “Lookout Farm” band with pianist and long time collaborator Richie Beirach.  After a world tour with pianist Chick Corea, Liebman started to lead a series of bands that stayed together for long periods of time.  Often found performing with the best of Europe’s top jazz musicians, Liebman today leads a band first formed in 1991 with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist, Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko.

As an artist Liebman has not limited himself to just a being a composer and performer in the widest realm of jazz’s subgenres, but is also a highly respected composer and performer of classical chamber music as well.  As an author he has published books which have been translated into several languages and articles on a variety of topics in magazines like Saxophone Journal and Jazz Educators Journal.  Active as a clinician throughout the world, Liebman has received grants from organizations worldwide such as the NEA and Canadian Arts Council to list just two.  Among his various awards are included an Honorary Doctorate from the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki, Finland; the Order of Arts and Letters from France; induction into the International Association of Jazz Educator’s Hall of Fame; and for 2011, the coveted Masters of Jazz from the NEA.  When Downbeat magazine called Liebman, “one of the most important saxophonists in contemporary music,” it was obviously about as massive an understatement as can be written.

As you have and continue to move through your career, I was wondering if the saxophone and music has taken on a different meaning in your life now than when you were younger and just starting your professional performance career?

I just had that same question put to me yesterday at a clinic by a young girl.  She asked if it feels different to play now than when I was young.  From someone that young, it’s an unusual question.  I obviously understand more about the music now than when I was young and more proficient at what I do….basically just more experienced.  I play better, that’s for sure.  The old axiom is true that the more knowledge you have the more you realize there is to learn.  From a larger view, I think we as artists have a very important function in the world, in the society and culture because we are like emissaries from the other side. Those of us who can teach it and explain it, as well as perform it, have a mission.  If there is anything that I feel more now than ever it’s that we have a calling, a function, and a role for which there is a need in the
greater society.

The older you get the more you start to think about your contribution to the world and what that means. This is part of the natural passages of life.  We’re blessed to have this lifestyle and the privilege to play this music descending from such a great tradition; to play for people all over the world who enjoy it and for some who are new to it.  Through it people can find out more about who they are, because this a deep and passionate music.  As is true of all great art, it makes the receiver feel more.  As I get older people ask me if there is anything more I want to do.  My answer is that outside of playing with so-and-so, or doing a specific musical project, I’m doing what I should be doing until I can’t anymore.
With regard to recordings, you’ve taken on some projects where you will explore the music of a selected composer.  Some of those projects include investigating the music of Kurt Weill, Alex Wilder, Ornette Coleman, and the Italian opera composer Puccini.  When you select an artist to investigate are there certain characteristics in their compositional style that draw you to them?

It depends on who it is.  If it’s someone like Ornette it is the melodic content.  When I did the Monk record 10 to 15 years ago it was the combination of the rhythmic aspects of his melodies in combination with his choice of harmonies.  If it’s Kurt Weill or Wilder, their music is more popular song oriented and it’s all about a good melody that I feel I can get into and possibly reharmonize a bit. With Puccini it was obviously the melodies. So it depends on the composer in question.  I’ll usually look at the strong point in that selected composer, and use that as the focus of my arrangement.  From there I’ll add what I would do personally to make the song more applicable to my style.  There are traditionally two views concerning playing standards or classics: there is respecting and doing the music as it was initially composed as a total homage to the composer.  Then there is my view which I feel is the greatest compliment, where you take somebody’s material and because it is so facile and easy to transfer to your own style, you end up reforming or rearranging the tunes towards creating a different light on the music that wasn’t there before.  I do that with great respect and as much freedom as I can conjure up.  Sometimes I don’t change things very much.  The Weill and Wilder records I didn’t change much; they’re both straight forward with me taking care of some loose ends in regards to
harmony.  With the Puccini material I obviously changed the harmony and didn’t touch the melodies for the most part; while on the Monk tunes I only made a few changes.  With the Ornette repertoire I added harmony to tunes that did not, in some cases, have harmony.  It really depends on the artist


You brought the music into your voice.

I think that’s the way.  Redoing known material alongside one’s own original compositions represents a full body of work.  In our music, as in classical, you reinterpret the past and move on to the present and hopefully the future at the same time.  You’re never one or the other; you’re all of it at once.  Because I record so much I’m able to find a home for the variety of things I do.  One label might say they like this while another label will say: “No, I like this other stuff.”  I’m flexible enough to try to find the right place for a particular situation.


Your latest recording, “As Always” is incredible.  Your collection of music performed by a big band is great, and your soprano playing is just so pristine and pure, wonderfully dancing at times, all the while very harmonically inventive.  Within the big band format, solo space is not as open as it can be in a trio or quartet setting.  Because of this, when you solo with a big band do you approach the construction of your solos differently?

Not differently overall, but because of the context with 18 guys sitting and waiting for you to finish, and the impending energy of so many people coming in musically at some point, there’s obviously an energy difference from the get-go.  With the big band the energy is turned up in such a way that I might move a little faster getting to a point of climax than if I am playing with the quartet.   Knowing that I have other musicians waiting while I solo and that they’re going to come in like gangbusters, I probably don’t tell the long story the way I usually do. Therefore I’ll get to the point where the solo would normally end up anyway but in a little quicker manner.  That’s a manifestation of the context, but there are exceptions for example if  it’s a ballad of course I try to treat it in due fashion-the same with a rock type tune.
You’ve written extensively on how saxophonists can work to develop their own sound.  Your tenor sound is a big fat sound that doesn’t seem to touch on the Texas tenor concept, yet at times you seem, to me at least, to have touches of that tonal framework in your sound.  Am I way off, or do you also feel you have some Texas tenor bite in your soul?

I’ve never thought of that, but I do see where you’re coming from in a certain way.  I do aim for a very fat bottom-end, dark sound.  The Keilwerth horns I play, both tenor and soprano, allow me to get that sound more so than any of the other brands I’ve played.  If there is a similarity to the Texas tenor guys, so be it, but I’ve never really thought about it.  I’ve always considered myself to be New York bred meaning high energy and not obviously as blues based as the Texas tenors. After all when you say Texas tenors you mean blues based, and I’m not going to fool anybody, that is not a major component of my sound.  It is certainly a major part of my knowledge and what I’ve had to do to learn jazz because blues is basic to it, but I’ve not come from a blues tradition.  So if it is anything it might be in my sound and your observation is well taken.


You are performing all the time, not only as a leader, but also with a wide variety of other musicians in jazz as well as in classical chamber music circles.  This means you are continually learning new music.  Do you have a method or a routine you follow when it comes to approaching new music?

These days, because you can send stuff via sequencer and in MP files,
almost everybody sends me music up front.  I’m pretty fast and a good reader.  I’ll look at what is coming up in the next few weeks and see if there are technical things I have to consider in the music.  Then I’ll go to the sequenced recording and play along with it to see if I’m cool.  In some cases, as with the music I did with (Pierre) Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain, which incidentally I’m doing again in two weeks at the Manhattan School of Music with the orchestra there, I really had to put in the practice time because the music is highly contemporary with odd meters and crazy rhythms.  I worked carefully with the score and the sequenced version of the music putting in at least 30 hours. When I got to the rehearsal all of that practice time really paid off.  I could’ve maybe winged it, because most people when they write for me usually give parts that are pretty loose and open, but I like to be prepared.  I like to know the chords and the rhythms and so on.  So it really depends on the difficulty level with regard to how I’ll prepare new music.  I don’t fret over it or get into it too deeply because I don’t want take away from the freshness of the event when it arrives, but if need be I will look at it beforehand.


As a composer who has written compositions that fall into what is typically considered both jazz and classical genres,  do you have a different compositional mindset when you are working on a piece for a classical ensemble as opposed to when you’re composing a jazz work?

I have to really put the brakes on.  I’m used to looking at a piece of music that doesn’t have any expressive markings, maybe just some tempo things, and then just doing what I hear in regards to elements like tone color, sound, attack, vibrato, etc.  With my first classical pieces in the 1980s that were published by Advance Music, I got involved with strings, woodwinds and sax quartets. The publisher insisted, and he was right, that I put in all the markings for the performers.  So in composing like that you have to pre-hear what you want the musician to do.  Do you want dah-dot, or dot-dah?  You have to figure it out.  This is certainly different than what we as jazz players do which is to rely on our experience and instincts during the moment of  performance.  So there is more labor in this kind of writing because I’m singing it to myself the way I think it should be played.  I have to make decisions and then stand behind them because the classical guy is going to absolutely play what you write.

I had an amazing experience at the Paris Conservatory with Claude Delange.  He invited me to do a master class for his students; not the jazz side, the classical saxophonists. I had some trepidation….what would I tell his students?  They are the best in the world.  He was very open and said I could do anything but for sure he wanted me to hear his students play my pieces.  There was a saxophone quartet, a piece for viola and soprano, and some others I’ve written.  These guys are cracker musicians and when I wrote pianissimo or whatever, they meant it.  It wasn’t like jazzers who are a little more general interpreting directions.  For them, if you write sforzando, they will play a sforzando.  I was knocked out.  I couldn’t believe how different these pieces sounded.  It was a great lesson for me in what interpretation really means and the difference between what a classical and jazz performer really do.  I was really impressed….the music sounded better to me.  With that in mind, when I write for those kinds of situations, I try to be careful about how I think the musicians will interpret what I say in terms of interpretation, tempo and so on. 
I loved the quote of yours where you said: “If you could get a little pinky toe of Coltrane, you could spend your life on it.”  For young developing saxophonists, do you have a suggestion about how they should first approach coming to understand Coltrane and his music? 

As in the case of any massive artist, Picasso, Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Einstein or Miles, etc., the massive body of work they produced makes it easy to get lost in their universe. A young musician who isn’t living contemporaneously with the actual artist’s creations looks at it on a piece of paper, a list of sorts. They see everything from A to Z…..Coltrane for example…. 1955 to 1967 is just a long list to them.  How do they tackle it?  This is a good question.  In a perfect academic world you’d start at the beginning and do the study systematically following Trane’s chronology just the way he did.  You would go from his early playing, seeing how he added things and in his case it all made sense because you follow the logic.  That might not be possible in a true learning situation with a syllabus, schedule, etc., so you pick a period that would be the most fertile for the student in the real world.  In Coltrane’s case that would be his playing on chord changes meaning basically his time with Miles Davis.  If I had to pick a time that would be of most value to the initiate, I would say do Coltrane from 1955 or 1956, up to 1959/1960 ending with Giant Steps.  You would also include those recordings with Monk all the time considering Coltrane’s progress using the diatonic harmony that was present in all the repertoire of that time, leaving the later modal and free stages for another study if possible.  That’s about the best way to go, because otherwise there is just too much. After all he moved so quickly in twelve years that when you look at the whole body of work it is overwhelming.

You were once asked if “you ever feel a need to re-invent yourself or your music at a fundamental level,” and your answer was, “All the time.”

I wish I could.  I wish had more time.  I should be doing long tones, scale work, etc.  We all wish we had more time. I would love to go back to all of the books I have piled up and all of the recordings I haven’t listened to in-depth….all of the things I wish I could fix and can’t because I’m busy. I’m certainly not complaining because being busy with creative work is a good thing. I admit that I often carry the thought in my mind that it won’t always be like this.  I’m not a fatalist but it is logically inevitable. So I go from project to project.  I’m on the road here in Oakland with my quartet as I speak to you Thomas, next week with the big band in New York, and the week after doing that Boulez music I mentioned earlier. Then I have a tour with Saxophone Summit (Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane) in Europe.  I’ll have to bring that music out again as well as looking towards writing new material for the group.  My musical life moves from project to project with very specific deadlines and intense periods of work.  As a result of this I have to be well organized and know which pile of music I need to take, what needs to be done and so on.  I have a file with envelopes for every band I play with, from my bands to the groups I join here and there, and then big band and orchestra music.  I have to move efficiently and quickly, and thank God I’m pretty good at it.  As far as being able to reinvent yourself, taking that to mean going back to review and refine, and consider any gaps in my art, I just don’t have the time to do that–it’s sort of a mixed blessing as I see it.
What advice do you have to help a musician who finds themselves in a rut, not moving forward?

A musician is going to find themselves with this problem, maybe several times in a career.  Some of it can be internal, something within the musician.  It can also be external because maybe you don’t have something worthwhile to work on and are not creatively busy. For me as you can tell, it would be impossible for me to feel that way because I move through so much interesting music in a given period meaning I don’t have any opportunity to be in a rut.  But when I was younger and there wasn’t as much work when I didn’t have any notoriety, there were weeks when I was just sitting around looking at the wall.  You can feel guilty at those  times I guess, depending upon your psychological makeup….should you be playing more, practicing more, working to go get  more gigs or making more calls or whatever would be appropriate for the protocol at that time?  It can lead you astray for a while.  I usually tell people that up to a certain point, if you don’t feel like playing or practicing, or you’re just not into it, I suggest you put the horn down, take a walk, read a book, go to the movies, sit on a mountain, whatever.  Just don’t do something negative.  Find something that is positive away from the music.  Don’t worry that the music isn’t giving you something back at that time.  Music is like a river where sometimes the water runs high and sometimes you have to wait for rain.  You have to accept this and not fight it.  Fighting it can make it worse and then all sorts of mind games can start.  I say: “Go with it.”  If it goes on for months and months, well maybe one has to reconsider what track they’re on.

 There is certainly something that happens, I’ll call it magic, when you and Richie Beirach play together.  Thankfully it’s been documented in Lookout Farm, Quest, and in duets among other sources.  What do you think is there about the musical relationship you two enjoy that makes your work with him so special?

Our long history which starts in 1969, and him being such an integral part of several of my groups, is the key. This is in addition to our long personal relationship.  We actually come from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, which we didn’t know when we first starting meeting as musicians.  He is a harmonic master, and I’m a melody player. It’s actually quite simple….melodies depend, at least in the Western world, on what sounds under it in terms of the harmony as far as the expressive content, the emotional message you might say. And there are a lot of choices.  Richie and I developed a very specific language which is spelled out in my book (A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody).  This was written from the standpoint of 20th century music.  Richie dove deeply into that repertoire and brought it back to jazz.  Other greats have done the same in bits and pieces, like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, in particular. But Richie went so deep into it he made it his own language.  I was privileged to be the guy on top of the chords with the melody who feels and benefits from the effects of such a rich, contemporary and sophisticated harmonic background that Richie can provide.  I also have bits and pieces with other pianists, like the wonderful duets that I do with Phil Markowitz and Marc Copland.  These guy are all different… apples and oranges. With Richie it’s all about the deep harmonic language we developed together over decades. We will soon have a new duo recording out next year, Unspoken, which I think is our best.

Your thoughts on the time you spent with Miles Davis are widely available both on your website and in the book, Miles Davis and David Liebman – Jazz Connections, by Larry Fisher.  What I wanted to ask regarding Miles was something Gary Bartz told me…. that Miles was actually a very funny guy.  This is not a trait we ever could imagine about Miles from the press or media.  Did you also find this to be true and if so could you talk about Miles’ playful and fun side?
He could be playful and witty but he had to be relaxed.  The real world, of course, would never see him in that state because as with any public personality, the public is a major consideration.  Remember in our jazz world he was Michael Jackson…obviously nothing like Jackson’s numbers, but from the 1950s until his death Miles was the king and on top of the throne.  Everybody who ever saw him, post-gig, pre-gig, on the stage, etc., saw him in that light. He was the hippest of the hip for an entire generation or two.  But his sidemen, as Gary is alluding to, would inevitably see him in the dressing room and in his apartment in a different light.  Let’s face it, he could be a maniac and at times, a difficult personality, but inevitably so and as people usually are, when not cornered and feeling very relaxed, he might cook you some food and put the spoon into your face: “Eat my stuff!”  He could be a doting guy in a way.  He had that side to him.  In private he wasn’t dour, serious and hostile.  He could be difficult but when he was cool he was very cool and ok to be with.  It wasn’t like being around some people with whom you may feel cool but you knew that at any moment they might light up like a tinderbox.  He wasn’t like that.  When he was cool he was ok.  I’m glad Gary said that. Of course, drugs had a lot to do with his being difficult at times, but that is another story.

I was wondering, with all the writing you do and have done, including all of the incredible material available on your website, if you look back on  your degree in American History and are really glad you earned a degree in a subject that demanded a lot of writing in school. Did that background aid you in being able to express your musical ideas so succinctly and as
eruditely as you’ve gone through your career?

That’s a good question.  First a little history…when I was 19 years old I started as a music major at Queens College.  I figured I’d get a teaching degree and play on the side.  Back then it was all classical, there was no jazz.  I wanted to stay in New York City and Queens
College was reputed to have a good music education program.  On the first day they handed out a listening list for the next four years which started with Palestrina ending with Stockhausen.  Needless to say, I was a little on the short side of that kind of repertoire because I had such a strong interest in Miles and ‘Trane, etc. I was blown ou!!. But I did put in six months, living at home during this time, staying late in the music library every night listening to this music, which I really didn’t like. I had to pick another major. I always loved history….I was in advanced placement American History in high school and had a great teacher there.  Eventually I told my parents I wanted to go to NYU to study history.  Of course, what I did was live a sort of double life, doing the music on the side.  By the time I was 21-22,  I just wanted to get out of school and play, not that I was playing good, but I just wanted to get on to the next stage in my life which fortunately ended up being the loft scene, then my time with Elvin (Jones) and Miles (Davis). But I had to finish school.

I’ve thought many times: “What did I get out of it?”  As I reflect years later, there was something that happened to me intellectually in my forties in that I was able to grasp concepts and ideas better than previously. It can’t but help one’s art….these kinds of tools, meaning that those muscles which work on conceptualizing and dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s are going to help you conceive across the boards when you want to… and in my case, I wanted to.  More to the point, I think that whatever I gained through the study of history definitely paid off when I started to teach. After all, teaching means you have to form concepts. You have to be clear, and that process will inevitably, in the final result, lead to more clarity in the art itself especially in the presentation of your work. It could be any aspect ranging from playing overtones on the saxophone to what notes are good over a C7-flat9 chord, and everything in between.  Mind skills are very useful.  And of course there is the obvious bottom line to the study of any history which is that you see the flow of events and understand things about the world like for example, that nothing is ever going to change.  The reality is that people are people with all of the positive and negative stuff we see in life. We can’t escape the duality of the human condition. This is beyond the merely political. History made me understand the curve and flow of life, which I’m not sure I would have gotten any other way.  I may have gotten something else from another discipline, but I don’t think I would have ever been able to see things in that manner.  I’m very glad I went to college.  On January 6, 1966 or whenever during that period, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that, but the fact that I have these skills has helped me a lot.  I’m not looking down from the mountain but I do feel that my education helped to separate me from many of my peers in subtle ways.  Remember in my time we couldn’t go to school for jazz.  Whatever that college education did for me, however that trained me, the results are what you alluded to about my web site.  Let’s say the amount of information and so on you see there is a representation of my work, and I think is a direct result of my education.

As a flute player, in addition to your work on the saxophones, do you find cross fertilization occurring between the work you do on your instruments?  In other words, does the flute inspire your saxophone playing and does your saxophone playing inspire your flute playing?

I played the C flute in the beginning, and even developed a reputation on it because I used it with Miles, which at that time nobody had ever done. But I gave it up in 1985.  I felt like I didn’t want to be second best on it. In other words I didn’t want to play an instrument when I  knew I wouldn’t have the time to devote to it that is required.  Let’s start at the beginning….sound.  Flute is an everyday experience… can’t just pick it up and be right.  I haven’t play C flute since the ‘80s.  These days I play a little wood flute which is really just a little ethnic toy.  I do get a lot out of it. In fact it may be the one thing people most remember when they come to near me.  Concerning the soprano and tenor, they are like apples and oranges meaning they’re all fruit, but you might as well just call them different species.  The soprano, as we all know, is certainly different from all the other saxophones and the flute has nothing to do with any of them except for the fingering and then only for two octaves.  They’re all different.  Cross fertilization in my case….no.  For me the tenor is JAZZ, and the soprano is that plus everything else.  I used to play the flute in avant-garde or ethnic musical idioms… they each have their own little thing.  What happened was that by 1980 I had a sort of recipe that I followed with the three different choices in regard to choosing what tunes I would play tenor on, soprano or flute. And this started to bug me, because it wasn’t really truly honest for my evolving aesthetic. So I stopped everything but the soprano for fifteen years, and that of course lead to really getting inside that horn.

You had the opportunity to play freely with saxophonist and free jazz legend Evan Parker.  To be fair, of course, he also had the opportunity to play with you.  Of the experience you wrote, “I will remember this evening as one of my best experiences with a peer saxophonist.”  Is there a way to  describe for the readers who are perhaps mystified by what is really going  on when musicians are playing free, as to how these types of interactions work?

It’s a long question because it’s a musical answer.  Let me put it this way: music has five elements to it. We know the great triumvirate which are melody, harmony and rhythm, but we also have to include color and form.  Form is obvious.  By color I mean sound, maybe sound for sound’s sake, not just the sound of a C-natural but the overall texture, the tone of the instruments together, the tessitura, etc.  These are all parts of sound or what I call color.  Color by itself is something that free jazz raised to a higher level than previously, as did fusion.  Fusion did it through electronic means, via pedals and electric sounds and so on.  In my band now we use pedals.  My bass player alone has four or five choices he can use to change the color of his sound; I’m even using a processor now for some of the things we’re doing.  What I’m referring to in answering your question though is the non-synthesized color of the horn which isn’t about melody, or the harmony, or even necessarily about the rhythm, even though they are all tied and intertwined together.  The emphasis in the kind of free jazz you are referring to I think is color.

When you play with someone like Evan Parker who is familiar with that way of playing and has developed it to a high level, I have no choice but to go into it….gladly!!  When you listen to the record we did together, which is a live gig, you need to listen in terms of ambient sound; in terms of environment, or texture and being bathed in an overall soundscape.  You can’t say: “Look at the melody line they just played.”  That’s not what’s happening.  The listener has to come in suspending the usual parameters of judgment which are normally lyrical melody, rhythm in terms of a beat, and harmony if it is present.  One has to listen for the overall sound, aura and environment that is being created.  If they can do that, which takes some time and experience and a willingness to be flexible, you’ll be okay listening to so-called free jazz.  It’s not about placing the other three elements out of consideration, but just suspending judgment in those realms and raising your level of awareness towards the overall sound. Also, especially in the case of guys like Evan or me, you have to accept the high energy level and not be intimidated by it, though it can be off putting and sound like chaos. On the other hand,  free jazz can also be very spacey, pianissimo and not very energetic, yet still achieve the same effect of color I’m alluding to.  It’s really about a different way of listening.

As someone who has done a lot of teaching, including in clinic settings, is there a deficiency you find in the youth who are in colleges studying jazz that you would like to see them focus more on during their education?

I think they’re getting it right these days.  They’re getting instruction from people like myself, peers and legions of students who understand that the young artist has to walk before they run.  Students should start somewhere near the foundation, which in this case is about playing chord changes, basically beginning with Charlie Parker and working their way up in a sequential manner.  School is about giving them material to do with what they want.  We’re not setting them up to be artists right away. That comes later in some cases. I must say in going around to so many different schools as I do, everybody is more or less taking care of business in this respect.  What the students don’t have, and it’s not their fault, is the environment like the jam session or other opportunities that were the lifeblood of developing as a jazz musician in the past. What they have instead is a combo at three in the afternoon in Room 221 or at night in the dorm or neighborhood bar to play. This is okay, but the way we used to live was music all day.  We talked about it all day long; we practiced during the day and played at night and hung out. It was a lifestyle.  The social element of making and thinking and playing music all day long is missing, and it’s not their fault.  It’s a part of history, a moment that passed.  We’re not going to have that again.  The 20th century was about people gathering in a bar and socializing, and then music came to accompany it, as it has for eons in gatherings of people.  That is to one degree or another disappearing.  Students are missing something they can’t control.  Pedagogically I think the teachers are doing an amazing job.

As an educator myself I am both encouraged by all of the great jazz education that can be found in schools today, but I am also a little worried.  Blair Tindall, in her book, Mozart In The Jungle, in writing about classical musicians in music schools, wrote, and I wonder if there is not a tie-in to jazz education of today: “The noble intentions of NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts, the arts high school she attended), encapsulated what would later plague classical music in America: explosive growth without a realistic mission… and the simultaneous isolation and elevation of… (an) art form above the comprehension of those who were expected to support it.”  In relation to this, do you ever worry about all of the students being sent into the world today with jazz degrees?  Are we doing the same thing?

In that respect, of talking a language that nobody understands, it appears to have some truth to it. Jazz has been guilty, as has certainly the avant-garde classical tradition, of talking only to the experts.  That is unavoidable when you have numbers of people all involved in the same thing.  In other words, there are so many people exploring this music it’s inevitable that  some people will come up with something that is so esoteric just for them and their friends.  I don’t think that’s bad.  I think from the aspect of audience, funding, venues, etc., it is not helpful.  Who’s going to come if we don’t have the numbers?  But to be honest, I never thought that this music, outside of early jazz which happened to coincide with the pop culture of the 1920s and ‘30s with the big bands and Dixieland, was for everyone.  When bebop came around in the mid 1940s, the musicians started to play for themselves in a way.  You’re not going to be able to dance to it and you probably won’t be able to keep your finger tapping.  The music was so blindingly fast that even if you knew something about it you were going to be blinded by the science of it, so to say.  This is unavoidable because musicians can’t stand still. Remember, there are plenty of musicians who speak to the people on their terms which we call popular music…. classical has it as well as jazz.  The world is not bereft of musicians speaking the people’s language, but for those who can, and are skilled and serious about it, who evolve into something that is more esoteric by its nature, they have to move on and it might not be readily available to most people.  Specifically, in a school situation we have to make artistic compromises considering the reality of making a living.  You can’t tell a kid: “Play only this,” and then there are only five people in the audience and they can’t make it work economically.  So we urge a full vocational sort of education, but this is a separate discussion in itself.

We teach them to play a lot of styles, be able to write, to read, sing, run your own business, whatever….in other words, the well-rounded musician is now a Renaissance man, not by choice, but by necessity.  In that respect I expect a young musician to be able to, in certain situations, play something that is more readily accessible to the lay ear, but this should not take away from what ever else (s)he may want to play which is not readily accessible.  So in commenting on your quote….yes…we have a definite problem seen in a certain light. Look, Coltrane himself was guilty of this as he played way beyond his audience at the end of his career.  Up to a point he was able to keep them but by the end, forget it. There was a great event in 1966 in Carnegie Hall called the Titans Of The Tenor Saxophone, with Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and others.

The second half of the concert was all Coltrane.  He came out and played the wild late stuff and half the audience left.  Our art form has to do its own thing…it can’t stand still because the people can’t catch up with it.  But of course people have real lives. We can’t expect them to understand what Trane was playing in 1966.  It was predicated on what he did in 1965 and so on.  You can’t expect people to make the shift out of nowhere. It’s like going to a movie that is very esoteric and subtle. If you don’t watch for the cues, be hipped to what they are, you’re not going to understand it.  So you do your best.  The musicians should try to somehow communicate but we have to coexist with this basic paradoxical situation.  We have to try to take care of business and respect the audience but we also have to absolutely do what is in our mind, and in our hearts and in our ears, and not be bound by any restrictions.

Soprano – Keilwerth-the new Liebman model with an Aaron Drake mouthpiece using Superial 2½ reeds with a 5 custom made tip -mouthpiece opening is around 100 thousandths
Tenor – Keilwerth  with a Lebayle mouthpiece and Superial 2½ reeds but again custom made tips equal to a 4- opening somewhere around 120-125 thousandths
Wood flute – a $2 wood (maybe?) recorder

Selected Discography


As A Leader


As Always, Dave Liebman Big Band Live (Mama, 2010) 

Turnaround – The Music of Ornette Coleman (Jazz Werkstatt, 2009)

Lieb Plays Kurt Weill (Daybreak, 2008)

Furthermore Conversations (True Azul, 2007)

Live at the IAJE (On Site Recording, 2007)

Back On The Corner (Tone Center, 2006)

Blues All Ways (Omnitone, 2005)

Negative Space (Verve, 2005)

The Distance Runner (Hatology, 2005)

Dream Of Nite (Verve, 2005)

Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003)

Line Ish (Emanem, 2003)

Lieb Plays Alec Wilder (Netherlands, 2003)

In A Mellow Tone (Zoho, 2001)

Beyond The Line (Omnitone, 2001)

The Unknown Jobim (GMN, 1999)

Colors (Hatology, 1998)

Water, Giver of Life (Arkadia Jazz, 1997)

Time Immemorial (ENJA, 1997)

A Walk In The Clouds… Liebman Plays Puccini (Arkadia Jazz, 1997)

Return of the Tenor – Standards (Double Time, 1996)

New Vista (Arkadia Jazz, 1996)

Dave Liebman Group Live at MCG (MCGJ, 1995

Voyage (Evidence, 1995)

Meditations Suite (Arkadia Jazz, 1995)

Miles Away (Owl/EMI – Blue Note, 1994)
Songs For My Daughter (Soul Note, 1994)

Besame Mucho (Red Records, 1993)

Setting The Standard (Red Records, 1992)

Turn It Around (Owl/EMI, 1992)

Joy (Candid, 1992)

The Seasons (Soul Note, 1992)

Classic Ballads (Candid, 1991)

Classique (Owl/EMI, 1991)

The Tree (Soul Note, 1990)

One Of A Kind (Line Records, 1990)

Trio Plays Cole Porter (Red Records, 1989)

Timeline (Owl/EMI, 1989)

The Blessing Of The Old, Long Sound (New Sound Planet, 1989)

Trio Plus One (Owl/EMI, 1988)

Homage To John Coltrane (Owl/EMI, 1987)

Picture Show (PM, 1985)

The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner (CMP, 1985)

Sweet Fury (Canada, 1984)

Lieb Close-Up (CVR, 1982)

Memories, Dreams and Reflections (PM, 1981)

If They Only Knew (MCA – Impulse, 1980)

The Opal Heart (Enja, 1979)

Doin’ It Again (Timeless, 1979)

Dedications (CMP, 1979)

What It Is (Columbia, 1979)

Pendulum (Artist’s House, 1978)

Light’n Up Please (A&M/Horizon, 1976)

The Last Call (Ego, 1976)
Ljubljana Jazz Festival ’75 (Jugoton, 1975)

Sweet Hands (A&M/Horizon, 1975)

Live From Onkel Po’s Carnegie Hall-New Jazz Festival Hamburg ’75 (Polydor, 1975)

Drum Ode (ECM/Polydor, 1974)

First Visit (Westwind, 1973)

Lookout Farm (ECM/Polydor, 1973)

Nightscapes (CBS/Sony, 1970)


As A Co-Leader


Relevance (Red Toucan, 2008)

Liebman Meets Intra Live (Alfa, 2008)

Porgy and Bess (Jazzheads, 2008)

Live at the Jazz Standard (Fenom Media, 2008)

Something Sentimental (Kind of Blue, 2007)

Renewal (Hatology, 2007)

Nomads (ITM, 2007)

As Always (Mama, 2007)

Waters Ashore (Transmuseq, 2006)

New Light – Live In Oslo (PM, 2006)

Flashpoint (Tone Center, 2005)

Miles Ahead (Jazzheads, 2005)

Three For All (Challenge, 2005)

Vienna Dialogues (ZoHo, 2005)

Redemption (Hatology, 2005)

Caminando (PAO, 2004)

David Liebman and Richie Beirach Retrospective (Mosaic, 2004)

Different But The Same (Hatology, 2004)

Manhattan Dialogues (Zoho, 2004)

In Berlin (Jazzmusic, 2003)

Human Circle (BMC, 2003)

Seasons Reflected (Soul Note, 2003)

Reasons For Christmas (Path, 2003)

In Berlin (Jazzmusic, 2003)

Day And Nite (Cornerstone, 2003)

Cues Trio Meets Dave Liebman (Abeat, 2002)

David Liebman and Marc Copland (Hatology, 2002)

Latin-Genesis (Whaliing City Sound, 2001)

Ghosts (Nightbird, 2001)

Lunar (Hatology, 2001)

Cosmos (Cadence, 2001)

Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess (Jazzheads, 2001)

Tour De Force (Household, 2000)

Among Birds and Beasts (Apple On The Moon, 2000)
Clear Day (Double Time, 2000)
Live At Big Mama’s (Soul Note, 2000)
Live At The Jazz School (Jazz School, 2000)

Inner Voices Live (Abray, 1999)

IASJ Gala Concert (1999)

Jazz Pioneers of the 70s (201 Music, 1998)

Thank You, John (Arkadia, 1998)

Missing A Page (Label Blue, 1998)

After Dark (IMC, 1998)

Suite for Soprano Sax and Strings (Naxos, 1998)

Atelier Musicale Del Ventesimo Secolo (Hatology, 1998)

Inner Voices (Abray, 1997)

World View (Label Bleu, 1996)

Live In NY (Dragon, 1996)
But Beautiful (Sunshine Digital, 1996)

Rencontrer (1996)

Luis Vidal With David Liebman (Fresh Sound, 1995)

Orchestre De Cambra (Fresh Sound, 1995)

In The Same Breath (CMP, 1995)

Souls and Masters (Cactus, 1995)

Far North (Curling Legs, 1994)

Falling Stones (Mons, 1994)

Graphic Reality (Owl/EMI, 1994)

The Colassal Saxophone Sessions (Evidence, 1992)

Of One Mind (CMP, 1990)

West Side Story Today (Owl/EMI, 1990)

Portal (Sari Seeri, 1990)

Chant (CMP, 1989)

Nine Again (Red Records, 1989)

Tomorrow’s Expectations (FMC, 1989)

New York Nights (Pan, 1988)

Natural Selection (Evidence, 1988)

Day And Night (McGill, 1988)

Midpoint (Storyville, 1987)

The Energy Of The Chance (Heads Up, 1987)

A Tribute To John Coltrane (Columbia, 1987)

Quest II (Storyville, 1986)

Double Edge (Storyville, 1985)

The Duo Live (Advance Music, 1985)

Guided Dream (Dragon, 1985)

Earth Jones (Palo Alto, Quicksilver, 1982)

Mistletoe Music (Palo Alto, 1982)

Spirit Renewed (Timeline, 1982)

Fusion Super Jam (EWJ, 1981)

Quest (Palo Alto, 1981)

Pendulum Live at the Village Vanguard (Mosaic Select, 1978)

Omerta (Breaktime, 1978)

Forgotten Fantasies (A&M/Horizon, 1975)

Spirit In The Sky (PM, 1973)
Open Sky (1972)


With Others


With Miles Davis:

Dark Magus (Columbia, 1974)

Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974)
Berlin ’73 (Jazz Masters, 1973)

Miles In Montreux – Box Set (Warner Brothers, 1973)

En Concert (Trema, 1973)
Miles And Beyond (Lyfe, 1973)
Call It What It Is (JMY, 1973)

Another Bitches Brew (Jazz Door, 1973)

Black Satin (Jazz Masters, 1973)

Palais Des Sports (Lyfe, 1973)
On The Corner (Columbia, 1972)


With Elvin Jones:

Genesis (Blue Note, 1972)

Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1973)


With Tom Harrell:

Visions (Contemporary, 1989)

Sail Away (Contemporary, 1989)


With Mahavishnu Orchestra:
My Goals Beyond (Douglas, 1971)


With Saxophone Summit:

Seraphic Light (Telarc, 2007)
Gathering Of Spirits (Telarc, 2004)