Interview for the Ottawa Citizen (2008)

David Liebman: No categories, no compromises


It’s David Liebman week here at Thriving on a Riff! Between today and the legendary saxophonist’s show on Thursday at Cafe Paradiso, I’ll be presenting exclusive interviews with Lieb, as he’s nicknamed, some comments on his CDs, and something special from the Citizen’s vaults. It’s the least I can do, given how much I’ve dug Lieb’s music for such a long tme.

During my formative years as a jazz fan/pianist, I never missed an opportunity to hear Lieb play. There was a mid-1980s show at a Toronto club that I can’t recall, during which Lieb led his epic Quest quartet through some thrashing, heady material. A few years later when I was in grad school, I saw him play in Montreal with the McGill University big band — Lieb was a big, big deal then for Canadian post-secondary jazz students — and also at the old 2080 club with some Montreal sidemen that likely included pianist Fred Henke and guitarist Mike Gauthier. Most recently, I saw Lieb playing at the Rex in Toronto, with Mike Murley, Jim Vivian and Ian Froman.

Not surprisingly, I have high hopes for Liebman’s Ottawa show this week — his first time here since 1971. I was too young to attend those Elvin Jones at Le Hibou, but I would love to read reminiscences by anyone that did. (You can email me using the address above the picture of Liebman, or leave a comment below.) My colleague Doug Fischer wrote about Liebman’s recollections in today’s Citizen — click here to read his story. Doug also kindly gave me an edited transcript of his interview with the exceedingly articulate Liebman, which you can read and savour below as we kick off David Liebman week.


Fischer: What brings you to Ottawa? It’s a treat for us to see a group like yours in a small club.

Liebman: It was arranged through the Upstairs Club in Montreal. They suggested I get in touch with Alex (Cafe Paradiso owner Demianenko). After a few calls we finally got it together. We have a free day or two before we go to Montreal. So Ottawa made sense for us.


Fischer: Have you been to Ottawa before? I’ve lived here since 1978, and I don’t recall you being here since then.

Liebman: I was in Ottawa in either 1971 or 1972. We played some godforsaken club in the middle of Christmas week, with snow up to our heads and temperatures around 25 below zero. We stayed in some kind of hotel-motel full of hookers. The whole thing was really depressing. And we played in that club for something like five nights. I can’t tell you the name of it, or what was happening but I was definitely there with Elvin Jones. And that was the only time I was ever in Ottawa. That’s gotta be more than 35 years ago. I just remember all the snow. But, you know, I remember the club was pretty full. What brought people out at Christmas and in all of that snow, I can’t imagine. But they were there.

That was the band with Steve Grossman and Gene Perla. Elvin was amazing. I learned so much from him. It really was a good band.

But sorry I don’t remember much more than that about Ottawa. But I never forgot that week after all these years.


Fischer: What can we expect at the Ottawa gig?

Liebman: We’ll play stuff from all the records, some new stuff, certainly some stuff from the latest record, which is called Blues Always. In fact I am deliberating what we’ll play on that tour when I get on the plane later today. I usually try to put some stuff in that’s old, that works, that we’ve done before, and some stuff that’s new to keep the band interested. So it will be a combination of things.

I think you can expect from this group — which you see from our records and my MO — is you’re going to get things that are eclectic, free jazz one minute and the next minute it could be straight ahead. So we have no categories, so it is likely to be four or five different directions in one hour. I like to put together a set that tells a story, like you’d do on a CD. It’s like a novel and each tune is a chapter. When you read a book you want a beginning and middle and an end. I am looking forward to it.


Fischer: Why is it so important to have a working band?

Liebman: I like the communication and trust that comes from a long-term relationship. When you really know people as musicians and as people, you feel you can really count on them. That frees you to take more chances and … it takes the music to a higher level. It translates into a better product for audiences.

There are two levels to these relationships. The first level is being with guys for the first few years, you’re getting used to guys – he’s got this to offer, he’s got that to offer, I don’t like this, I do like this. You both praise them and are critical as you get to know one another.

But then after a couple of years it’s more like a marriage, you get to a point where you say to yourself, ‘This is the way it is, don’t try to change it, make it what it is and make it happen.’ So you become really used to each other. It means you can really count on somebody, there is complete trust in what they are playing.

That’s what I thought 30 years ago – I learned it from Elvin Jones — and that’s why I keep doing it. I was in his quartet for a few years. We were the classic jazz working band, touring months at a time, playing small clubs, tough gigs, getting to know each other better all the time. We were good and getting better every night.

After a while, for me anyway, the guys get a feeling for who you are, what you do. And also, let’s face it, you are on the road together a lot and you want things to be as smooth as possible. When guys get to know each other they get to a point where they just get along. It’s not a party, it’s work. You’re like an army troop moving through the world as a little group. You learn how to take care of business and watch each other’s backs. I like that.

And as I said, I just think that translates on to the stage and in the end the audience is hearing better music. They may not know it, but you know great musicians can play great, that’s for sure, but when good and great musicians know each other there is definitely a higher level of communication and in jazz that is important.

I think people (audiences) really should get that, maybe they don’t because they don’t see it that much any more – the working band is pretty rare today –but when they get to hear a group that’s been together a long time and has a repertoire and been through things together musically I think they feel that energy and that there’s a higher level of performing.


Fischer: But like a marriage, I assume there are also drawbacks to a long-term relationship for a jazz band, right?

Liebman: Oh sure, there is a predictability, although every now and again a guy will surprise you, even if you’ve played with him for years and years. So, yes there can be that expectation factor but one of the ways you get around that from a technical standpoint is to keep the music changing, which I do a lot of. If you look at it, there is a list of 15 records we’ve done – mostly unknown, but we know them! – and we’ve been through a lot of repertoire. We have about 100 songs, which is quite a lot for a group in jazz.

That’s one thing. And another thing is we’re not working eight months a year. It’s not like it was in the ’60s and ’70s when bands worked six weeks, took off for a week or maybe two and then work another six weeks. We work six or usually eight weeks a year spread out over two or three occasions.

I try to keep it together because everybody’s busy and we all do different things. I see that as my responsibility, to keep us coming back and to keep it interesting.

I’m going to Europe today [March 25 — P.H] and I have a two weeks of music in three absolutely separate countries playing with absolutely separate groups of musicians. And the music couldn’t be more different. I think we all keep interested by being flexible and playing with lots of different people.

Being apart keeps things fresh. And when we see each other again after a few months, there’s always a sense of excitement about bringing new ideas back to musicians you really know. It all makes the group better. That’s the point. I have always found this to be true – even if a group is not playing together six months, day in and day out, somehow when they see each other a few months later and then again a few months after that it keeps getting better. And it gets better because everybody`s been playing and growing but also when they come back to the group there is a feeling, you know, ‘This is my group, and listen guys here is what I’ve been playing, I’d like to try this here.’ A working band is a really good place to try things because you know these guys and there is a lot they can do.

So there are a lot of good positive things about it. And, you know, there are some lessons for a marriage here, too. It really is like that. If you want to hang in there, you have to stay away from negative things and bring new positive things to the relationship. And that takes time and it takes work.

This year we’ll be doing a little more than usual. We’re going to Europe for two weeks in the fall. We have the two-week run that brings us to Ottawa and we have another one in June. And we have some festivals this summer. The closest one (to Ottawa) is probably the one at Rochester. But mostly we play clubs. At this level of notoriety – or lack of notoriety – that’s what we do.


Fischer: By my count, you’ve been on more than 300 albums and been the leader or co-leader on about a third of those. So why are you not better known, especially given that you’ve played with Miles Davis and Chick Corea and Elvin Jones and so many other big names? It’s an impressive list …

Liebman: I don’t really care about that. You have to really want it. That’s not why I do it. It’s a musician’s job to play with conviction. If you don’t go into the middle of the storm, I don’t see the point of doing it. Certainly everyone would like to be better known, but the truth is you usually have to make sacrifices to get ahead, and they are not the kind of sacrifices I want to make.

There are plenty of people out there who audiences can find if they are looking for entertainment. They don’t need us for that. For that matter, there is plenty of jazz they can find for entertainment. In fact, probably 80 or 90 per cent of present jazz is good for that. I think the few who know what they are doing and care to push the boundaries owe it to themselves and to their audiences to do just that. There are audiences, small ones probably, who want that and those are the people I am playing for.

John Coltrane didn’t get up and say, ‘I think this is going to please the people.’ He played with absolute honesty and sincerity. He played what was in his heart. He did it his way. If audiences can’t appreciate that, they should go listen to country music. I’ve never thought I am out there to please the people, either. I would hope they enjoy it and I am pleased when they do. But if I do my job correctly and play well and do the music the way it is supposed to be done, I am doing what is expected of me. And if people come expecting something different they came to the wrong place.

It’s like going to see the Rolling Stones and seeing Horowitz instead. I mean, you don’t find the same audience at each. You have to find your audience and my core audience is usually made up of students and musicians who know what I do and what to expect and I give them that. I am the right guy for them. If they want to hear something else, there are plenty of people to go to see.


Fischer: Have you been tempted to do things that are, you know, not quite what we’ve come to expect from you?

Liebman: I am not completely innocent, you know. I had a fusion band in the ’70s with Peewee Ellis and I’ve done other things like that. But I do feel I was always being very artistic. I just wanted to dive into that music. It’s how you present your music on a daily level that matters. A musician knows what works. It’s very obvious what works.

If you play what you like, I guess I have no problem with that. I have no problem with anyone who is truly, in their heart of hearts, playing what they do best. That is not a matter of compromise — that is what they do. But for someone who knows better or knows more or is into a deeper element, for them to do less, that is just wrong. It is not fair to those who really seek something more.

Look at Coltrane. He certainly knew there were different ways to communicate but it’s not like he was going to get up there and hold a high F sharp for four minutes like King Curtis could do and get people screaming and shouting. He did it his own way.

That was my lesson. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be the way I am. It just so happens I saw that with my eyes at a young age and it was just so impressive — the honesty and the sincerity and the absolute confidence, him saying, ‘This is what I do.’ I just didn’t see any element of doubt, like this is how I should or could or would have played, it was just, ‘This is it, and I hope you like it, but if you don’t well, too bad.’

I don’t want to be or sound elitist — I just feel it’s my job to play the way I do and it’s other people’s job to do other things.


Fischer: Teaching is a big part of what you do. That part of jazz has changed –- now it seems there is a career path to follow but in your day, and before that, it was much more improvised. Are things better now?

Liebman: Well, it’s a two-sided coin. It’s obvious when an art form gets to a certain point, people definitely want to partake. They have more access to it because of (advances in) our communications in the past 30 years. The music is just more available. So there is a natural desire for a young person or anybody to say, ‘I like that, where can I learn about it?’

There were not many tools in my day, I couldn’t find much. I had some lessons from Lennie Tristano. I’d wait outside his apartment in New York and then he’d let me in for 10 minutes and I’d play or not play and we’d talk over things and I’d go away again. The lessons weren’t very formal that’s for sure.

A very small amount of material was written down in those days and once guys started doing it, some guys who really sat down and formulized the music up to that point, then it was a bit easier. Once that’s really available then you are going to have people doing it. And you know with leisure time, with more time to do what you like to do rather than go cut hay, I think that was a natural thing. And our generation sort of became selected by virtue of being there at the time to have to explain to it to the next generations, to tell them why we do what we do.

And some could explain better than others and some were not inclined to do it. And I saw myself having a certain skill to do it, and as I developed it. I got better and better. And I also saw as a positive payback for what Elvin Jones gave me by letting me play with him, for what I learned from him. It’s certainly not the same but being with him or Miles or whatever I learned from that generation – I was lucky to be in the right place in the right time – but teaching is the way we do it now, there is no other way to do it.

I feel it is a duty and a responsibility. And if you get one kid that gets it that’s great but meanwhile 99 others in that room understand something about the tradition that we have, this great art, then it is only going to help them no matter what they do in life. I think they will look back and say that was something I did in my life that was very clear and honest whether I am doing something different now or not.

So for me it is a responsibility, I am called upon to do it. It is also a way a lot of musicians are making a living now. Most of the musicians you see up there these days are teaching somewhere. Even the most well known are teaching because it is required of them. You don’t go anywhere without having to give a workshop any more.

It has a downside, of course, because anytime you make something conform, you have to cut out certain things, you have to make it comprehensible, so there is a certain magic lost. On the other hand, cream rises to the top — I never think teaching is going to make somebody sound bad, it’s going to make them sound better. If somebody has it in them, though, it is going to come out anyway.

You do have a certain amount of clone psychology happening. That’s going to happen. If you are going to say something to 30 people, you have to say something in general, something to make it understandable. It’s like any lecture. So there is a certain conformity in styles. But on the other hand there is so much skill going around now … amazingly great music happening.

I’m doing something this week in Paris … these are guys, I don’t know where they got their music from. It’s a little bit of world music, it’s a little bit of jazz, some funk and classical. It’s a complete mixture of elements with an accordion and a guitar and a baritone saxophone and somehow they are throwing me in the mix. This is what’s coming out now from all of this education. These are all schooled guys, and they finding other ways of expressing this music. So, is it jazz? No. But jazz-like? Yes. And that’s the good part of all of this education, I think.

The fact that there is nowhere to play is a problem. That really is something we have trouble with. The music and creativity is out there but not the places to perform it. In a way, the classroom has taken the place of the club. But that’s the best we can do, it seems. Hopefully things will change, but I don’t see that happening. It’s sad.

Maybe the next generation can figure it out, I don’t know. Where are they going to put all of this amazing learning they are getting?

I guess there are going to be a lot of indie records, as there are now. And everyone once in a while, you know, someone rises above all of this and strikes a chord. A lot of young people are doing this so maybe we’ll have more people making a breakthrough, playing great and not making compromises to get known.

As a Phil Woods said to me one day as only he could say it, ‘I’d rather see a 14-year-old carrying a saxophone than a gun.’ And that’s not a joke in America.