Interview with Jazz Saxophonist David Liebman
Saxophonist David Liebman emerged into prominence during the 1960’s playing with legendary jazz greats Elvin Jones and later, Miles Davis. His career spans four decades and includes over 230 recordings as leader or sideman, more than 200 original compositions, continued international touring, and a passionate devotion to jazz education through writing, teaching and producing instructional videos. He is a “keeper of the flame” and considered a master of the modern style of improvisational jazz.
He attributes much of his musical inspiration to the study and contemplation of the written works from such notables as Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse and more. In 1988 he published Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist Musical Thoughts and Realities, an autobiography that offers up his insights into the life of an artist and demonstrates his “natural inclination to explain how things work.”
The spectrum of international awards he has received is a tribute to his passion and dedication and includes multiple Grammy nominations, honorary doctorates, National Endowment grants, and even the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Government.
SuperConsciousness Magazine spoke with Liebman about the intrinsic nature of spirituality within jazz.
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SC: How do you see music as spiritual and how is it revealed when playing music?
DL: The nature of music is an abstraction – something you can’t touch, you can’t see. There is just something about the non-tangible aspect that raises it to the realm of imagination, creativity and spirituality. But the spirit is also an abstraction because it, too is something you can neither see nor touch and the fact that it lays in the same invisible realm puts the musician on that wavelength, whether they know it or not. One famous example in jazz of course is John Coltrane who enunciated it and named his tunes with titles that suggested spirituality. But even with someone who doesn’t name songs in such an obvious way, I can feel it right away when I am playing music, and especially improvised music even more so than written music. I just get in that zone immediately.
SC: As a dedicated teacher, when you are at that place with a student and beginning to introduce them to the art of improvisation, moving them beyond the written notes, how do you step them into that so-called “zone?”
DL: With my advanced students, it is more like a master/apprentice situation, which is the way I learned by playing with Miles Davis or Elvin Jones and just being on the stage with them, really observing, feeling and by innuendo. I would do that with someone at a high level of playing. In a more basic situation, the main thing is to provide inspiration, not necessarily information – why is this music so great? The best thing to do is to play great examples of improvisation because that makes an impression. I tantalize them with that aspect of it, the way Coltrane did to me when I was fifteen years old and I saw him live at Birdland in New York. When I saw him play for the first time I thought to myself, “That can’t possibly be the same saxophone that I play at home.”
It was my curiosity more than anything that got me at that age. So with anyone that is even a little bit interested, I give them some improvisational basics so they see some results pretty quickly, enough to be able go on and to get further into it. Whether they become professional or not is beyond the question. When a student sees the point, we have educated this young person to understand a little bit more about what improvisation is, the mystery as well as the skills required.
SC: Jazz is usually seen as an intellectual expression, yet you speak of it as an expression of the heart. How do you inspire a student to take that leap into playing from the heart within such an abstract form of music?
DL: In my case, John Coltrane and Miles Davis are the people that did it for me. When it comes to heart and soul – that comes out in the music anyway, no matter what you think, no matter what you do. For instance, when Miles Davis plays, it’s unmistakable-you just get an image of a color or an emotion, or maybe a place, a landscape. But, not everyone in jazz is capable of transcending the instrument they play to such a degree. As simple as it sounds, it’s really crucial that the examples given a student are incontestably great; that anyone who knows something about the music will agree that this is an example of great feeling or great musicianship or great technique, whatever. There are plenty of such examples in the legacy.
SC: Is it an experience of transcendence of time and place? That you are so present – all of a sudden you are somewhere else?
DL: Well, of course you certainly hope for that. You have moments of that in a long career and that is what we look for. I can say that the ability to be really there in the moment is a switch that goes on as soon as I walk out on the stage no matter if I’m physically well or tired or whatever. There are legendary stories of guys transcending physical illness because once you get into the music you are in that zone. That is probably the reason we keep doing it.