KD: What kind of music were your exposed to as you were growing up?
DL: My father liked classical music, he loved Caruso, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and my mother played piano as a child. There was music around, but I very quickly got into the rock & roll of the fifties. I was a complete Elvis freak. I even had my own Top 25 weekly chart along with the Martin Block’s ‘Make Believe Ballroom.’ I listened to the radio fanatically and had a big collection of 45s. My brother played some accordion. Taking lessons was in the program. I had polio so I wasn’t going to play sports. I was in a brace all those years. So the most crucial decision ever made in my life was my parents insisting that I had to take two years of piano when I was nine or ten before I could choose an instrument of my choice. I dutifully did that with a local teacher, playing “Für Elise,” “Spinning Song” and all those things you do. When the two years was up, I said I wanted to play saxophone, which I heard in a lot of pop music on the radio. In the fifties, the tenor saxophone was the main solo instrument, not the guitar which really didn’t happen until The Beatles. They acquiesced so I went to a neighborhood school in Brooklyn on Saturday morning where I played in a combo, took piano and saxophone lessons. The saxophone teacher insisted that I take clarinet lessons for a year before I studied saxophone. So around age twelve, I finally got to the tenor. Where I heard jazz was interesting. On those Saturday mornings where I would take lessons….their name was Bromley…. the son, who was a student at Juilliard, would run these ensembles, two or three saxophones, bass, piano and drums, all kids, ten to fifteen years old. The mother was very active in putting groups together to play in the resort area near New York, the Catskill region, where there were a lot of hotels mainly for summer vacation time. By the time I was thirteen, I was playing in an ensemble, learning how to play with other people, the dance music of the day, what we call standards today. I was with three guys and that band stayed together for five or six years, called the ‘Impromptu Quartet’. Eric Bromley and his assistant would play between the hourly ensembles classes. Eric played a bunch of instruments, like I do now. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Playing jazz, we’re improvising.” I said, “But you don’t have music in front of you and your eyes are closed, you don’t look like you’re doing anything.” He remarked, “That’s because we know what we’re doing.” That was my first exposure to jazz. In the Catskills, from 1959 into the 1960s, a lot of musicians who were a part of the New York studio scene, Arnie Lawrence, Alan Schwartzberg, Donny Perillo, names that you wouldn’t know, would spend the summers playing in these show, Latin and cocktail lounge bands in the Catskills. Invariably after a gig, you’d go to a jam session to hear or play. But the most dramatic first exposure to jazz happened when I went to Birdland at the age of fifteen and saw Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan, followed a few months later by seeing Coltrane in February,1962. That was the day that my life changed.
KD: You had polio so young and faced many hospitalizations and medical procedures. Have you been able to mentor other musicians who have faced medical difficulties?
DL: Nothing specific but of course with the hundreds of students that I’ve had over the years, there have certainly been people who had some handicap or disability. When I see a young person who has been through that I know they have been been through a couple of wars. The suffering, anxiety and days spent in hospitals is the downside. But the upside is strength of character, resilience and possibly overachieving to make up for that. All of that goes into my M.O. as a young person. I didn’t know it then, but certainly when I did my bio (What It Is) with Lewis Porter interviewing me and thought about that period of my life, it became more clear. In a certain way, the positive outweighed the negative. I came out of it and am still affected by it in some ways, but it built a certain kind of character. I don’t know if I would have been the same person without it.
KD: You have definitely been a musical overachiever. Every time I visit your website and I see what you’ve released, I find I’m not even beginning to keep up with what you’re doing because there are so many different projects. You got two CDs with the Expansions group, you’ve been doing stuff with the big band, etc.
DL: I have to look at my schedule, I can’t just tell you off hand (laughs).
KD: You had already studied several instruments by the time you entered college, yet you didn’t enter a music program right away.
DL: First of all, there was nowhere to study jazz in college in New York at the time. There was Berklee and the Universities of Miami, Indiana and North Texas which were the four main guns in operation at that time for jazz education in the formal sense. By the time I was seventeen, I knew that I couldn’t leave New York if I had any interest in this music. In those days, we didn’t have hundreds of saxophone players running around like there are now, trying to make a life out of jazz, working and so forth. The idea of being a professional jazz musician was just a non-starter, nobody thought like that. But I knew that I wanted to get better at it and I realized I couldn’t leave New York City. That’s still true if you’re going to pursue this music by the way. So with that in mind, I thought I’d be a music major, at least staying somewhat in the field. The city schools at the time, Queens College particularly, had a very well known music department. So I signed up to be a music major. The first day you walk in for orientation, they hand you a list of four years of required listening that you’ll be responsible to identify. It started with Palestrina and Monteverdi working your way up to Stockhausen. I had very little knowledge of classical music, only what I played on piano or whatever I passed by with my father’s listening as mentioned earlier. I didn’t like classical but I did try that first six months at Queens College to stay in the music library after classes until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and try to catch up to Mozart et al. I was living at home in Brooklyn and commuting. It was fruitless because I was also trying to copy Coltrane, listening to Miles, etc. I quickly understood that I wasn’t going to be a music major and in those days, when you didn’t know what you wanted to do or had nothing to major in, there were two things you enrolled in……either psychology or English Literature!! Don’t ask me why, but those were the two fallback majors. So that next semester at Queens College, I became a psychology major, which was interesting, but not really the deal. Then I switched to NYU and got a degree in what I really did enjoy, which was American History. I always loved it and was good at it, I even won some essay contests at NYU and high school writing about American History. By the time I got to NYU in the Bronx (uptown division) in my sophomore year, I was living two lives. I was hanging in the Village and the lofts trying to get that thing together and at the same time going to school. The two sometimes met because I did bring, among others, Larry Coryell, Lenny White, Bob Moses to concerts at NYU in the Bronx. I did poison the atmosphere a little bit, but that was my college situation (laughs). In a Jewish middle class family with two teachers as parents, it was expected to go to college. That was not the norm in those days as it is now. In that time it was understood, I’m going to go and get a Bachelor’s degree in something, so there was no choice about that. I was frustrated at 19, 20, 21 years old still tied into school and watching my peers get ahead while I was still sitting there in something I didn’t want to do. But I had to, because my parents insisted. Also, in the long run, I believe that what has separated me from some of my peers is that I do have a college degree. I don’t mean the piece of paper. I mean the fact that I learned how to study, prepare and organize stuff. I don’t know if I would have been as adept at that without a college education. That sounds corny, but there may be some truth to it.
KD: That’s an interesting point. I think that studying American history helps you prepare in a lot of ways that maybe musicians who didn’t go to college don’t. You seem to be an avid researcher before you get into a project. If you’re writing liner notes, they’re going to be good, literate, accurate liner notes. I’m sure you remain very well read.
DL: Yes, I try to keep up. Also the thing about teaching is that it capsulizes your thoughts on subjects, which you wouldn’t necessarily do to such an extent. One of the things I insist on to my students, the ones who have been with me for awhile, or about to graduate from the Master’s program I teach at Manhattan School of Music who are about to move on to the real world of performing is that if you’re an artist and I’ll put jazz in there as an art form, you are in a sense speaking to the public that comes to hear you. They’re sitting out there, they’ve paid and taken their time to be in front of you for those hours and your duty is to inform them of what you think, feel, and are interested in. Of course, in music, it’s not a book or painting, you can’t hold it or go over the words again and again, it’s in the air and gone, and though we tape it, music in general is an art form that’s kind of a vapor. Therefore, what you do get across to those people is your life, from the very subtle and mundane to the large ‘this is what I think.’ The point is that these life experiences you get from life itself, you have to also get by being interested in looking around you. I urge my students to get out of the jazz box, the music box, and look around them to realize everything you can to see what’s going on in order to have some kind of world view. Because when you come out and perform, especially music which is so abstract, they’re getting that experience through you, even if you don’t say a word, announce the tunes or even say hello. Maybe you just get up and play like Coltrane did. It doesn’t matter….the audience is getting a feeling from the you and that is what you bring to the stage. Being literate and educated is part of the duty of being an artist, besides the craft itself.
KD: It’s frustrating to me when musicians play and don’t introduce tunes or give background for the songs. That’s part of the education process for the listener. I might have fifty CDs by the artist but there’s stuff happening that I don’t know. One time someone introduced Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun” and mentioned that he had gotten a job right out of college and he had written this song that took off and he was killed in a car wreck. Until somebody said that, I had no idea why there was just this one song by him.
DL: If I go to a museum and see a Picasso, I need those little tour guide boxes or someone with me to understand why he used pink over there or yellow over here. You can’t be responsible to know everything, but when you have more knowledge of things you appreciate it at a higher level. I would like to have someone take me to see a Bergman movie and say, ‘Look at the way the lighting is over there in that camera shot.’ To me that’s one of the most interesting things to hear, when experts talk about their stuff. I love being around experts, which I am in a very specific area. When you share the inside knowledge of something, that fulfills the curiosity aspect for anybody who’s interested. My father used to say, ‘How do you guys do it? You don’t look at each other, you don’t talk, your eyes are closed, but you seem to know what you’re doing and you’re all playing at the same time.’ To his mind, he couldn’t fathom how we came out with what we did because it looked so complicated and abstract. To me, any kind of back story that you can give helps the listener and makes them more open and it enhances the music in the long run.
KD: You studied briefly with Lennie Tristano and i know he was big on constructing new tunes from chord changes of familiar songs. It was challenging, wasn’t it?
DL: I was sixteen, seventeen and I went to him because my piano player friend, Mike Garson studied with him and said, ’You’ve got to go to this guy’. Again, there was nobody else, at least that I knew teaching jazz. It was a mystery…..we didn’t have transcription books, we didn’t have textbooks like mine, Aebersold, David Baker and so on that are so plentiful now. When you tried to learn this music, it was like ‘How do you learn it?’ There must be something else besides going out and hearing it, trial and error, which of course, is a lot of it. I didn’t know who Lennie was or his reputation as a major innovator and figure in jazz. Well, he just scared the shit out of me, because he was an off-putting kind of guy, definitely not warm or friendly. You took a ten to fifteen minute lesson, if that. I dutifully did what he wanted, which was to sing along Lester Young solos with Count Basie, then Frank Sinatra, the whole ‘Come Fly With Me’ record. He had his method meaning you played melodies with the metronome, then improvised off the melody without knowing the chord changes, etc. From what I learned about Lennie, it was a ten year regimen. Warne Marsh did the whole thing, so I only saw the shadow of it in the one year. I wasn’t ready for it….he was a cold guy and I was like any teenager, looking for a little communication. The one thing I did get from him was the answer to the question: there IS a way to learn this music, it’s not just in the air, there’s some organized thinking. And that was a revelation to me, as simple as it sounds. That changed my whole attitude towards jazz. Instead of being a mystery it became a job to do.
KD: I knw that Joe Allard was a very important mentor to you.
DL: He was the guru of the saxophone, the main cat. The biggest thing about Joe is that he was ecumenical. This was in a period when classical didn’t talk to jazz. If you were doing Villa Lobos, “Giant Steps” or a James Brown gig, it didn’t matter to Joe…..the principles were the principles and he basically made it clear that playing the saxophone was a natural evolution of speaking and singing. It’s the voice that is involved so don’t get uptight and nervous about it….don’t do anything to destroy your sound. Joe was a doctor who looked at you and said, ‘Okay, you have this kind of disease; here’s your medicine. You were taking the wrong medicine for this.’ It was about what not to do rather than what to do. He was very Zen in a way…..he didn’t talk details but demonstrated. He would bring out Gray’s Anatomy, the classic medical book and turn to the part where your throat was, the breathing apparatus, your lungs, etc. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about at the beginning and he was supposed to be the greatest teacher in New York and I said, ‘Let me stick with the guy.’ Ten years later, I got the point. Like any great teaching, you have to wait until you are ready to get it. You may not be ready for what Lennie Tristano said to you, or what Joe Allard said to you. They give you the information, but the timing is on you. I felt like it was an osmosis process with Joe that over the years I understood more. We stayed in touch and I wrote the book that’s considered a classic on saxophone playing now, as far as how the body goes and all that. He was great and a really nice guy. He came to the gigs like the Vanguard when I was playing with Elvin. He taught Steve Grossman and (Michael) Brecker, Dave Tofani, Eddie Daniels, Harry Carney. Coltrane took some lessons with him. He was a very beautiful dude and understood that basic principles of sound production on the horn are what they are, outside of style. After that, it was your business what you did with it.
KD: Discuss some of your early mentors, not only teachers but bandleaders and other musicians.
DL: Well, Pete La Roca (Sims) was very important. He was the first mentor I had. I auditioned for him and played about eight bars of ‘Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise’ along with Chick Corea and Steve Swallow, both of whom I knew at that time. He said, ‘Okay,’ and said, ‘Let’s rehearse.’ I was with him for most of 1969. Through him I met everybody because it was often a different piano and bass player. We were playing for literally five dollars a night at a club called La Boheme on 69th or 68th and Broadway. We were there for three, four, five months, pretty much every night and Pete was making a go of it. He was driving a taxi at the time but wanted to be a bandleader meaning he did not want to be a sideman anymore. He had offers from everybody since he was a pretty famous drummer who played with Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, Art Farmer and others. He was one of the go-to drummers of the sixties. Pete was very intelligent and a heavy guy who I realized was very lucky to be around musically and mentally. That was my first real experience and I’ve written a lot about what I learned from him. Following, my experience morphed into Elvin Jones. What can I say? I probably sat at Elvin’s feet over a dozen times with Coltrane during the sixties as a listener in the clubs and then there I was on the bandstand with him, a gigantic experience. All this lead to being with Miles Davis after Elvin. I was among the last to get the hands on mentor-mentee situation with Pete, into Elvin, into Miles. It was a four or five year period and that was undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree all at once. It was an amazing experience. I was making a living playing with Elvin and Miles, playing jazz with two of the most famous guys of all, among the most acknowledged masters of all time. So it could not have been better. I still thank whoever the force is for somehow landing at the right time in the right place, because of course these things have a lot to do with timing. Yes, you have the skills, but if you’re not the guy that’s at that audition, you don’t get it. You could miss by ten minutes. When I got the call for the ‘On the Corner’ recording with Miles, I was at a doctor’s office in Brooklyn. My mother found me and said ‘Teo Macero, somebody with this weird name, called and said that Miles Davis wants you right now at the studio. I knew what that meant. They were recording from 10-1 and it was noon. Talk about good luck, I just happened to have my soprano with me. If I had not had my soprano I would not have recorded that first track for ‘On the Corner’ record and I probably wouldn’t have been with Miles a few months later. So a lot of it’s luck and every day I thank the force that put me in the right time and the right place.
KD: Tell me about your dedication to the tenor and your later more prominent role on soprano. How did you develop your approach on these two instruments?
DL: You’re a big bouillabaisse of your influences with all the seasoning going into the soup. For me, Coltrane is number one and then Sonny Rollins. Just a bit less influence-wise is Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Those are my four main guys. They represented the way I wanted to play tenor. I studied a year with Charles Lloyd and he influenced me a lot in my playing. Not so much from teaching, just from being around him, hearing him play gigs so much. On soprano, Coltrane obviously and Wayne Shorter by the late sixties, but I didn’t really follow or copy anybody on soprano since at that time I always considered tenor to be my main instrument. My going to soprano only for fifteen years (1980-95) was a matter of making priorities in trying to become a master of something rather than just a dilettante, meaning someone who played good tenor, good soprano and good flute. So if I dropped the others and centered on the one for that period. The reason for choosing soprano is really simple. First off, it felt more natural than the tenor from a physical standpoint. Number two, there wasn’t so much water under the bridge by 1980 when I did this. There weren’t that many soprano players; the tenor had the whole history of jazz still alive and active, plus all the new guys. I felt that there would be more room to have an individual voice on soprano. Going back to the tenor in the mid-nineties was okay because by then I had made my relationship with the soprano solid. By coincidence as you called, I’m practicing flute a little bit again for a recording coming up. It’s been full circle with the three instruments. I would say that soprano has been my main guy and when I play tenor now, it’s all mixed up and I can hear what I learned from whom. I can stop a tape and tell you where I got that from. I can almost even tell you the recording. But on soprano, except for the obvious influence of Coltrane, Wayne and to a lesser degree Steve Lacy I really don’t hear so many influences on soprano, which is good. In a certain way, it’s more Miles on trumpet than there is saxophone. I’ve got a lot of things from Miles just watching him play trumpet, because the soprano and the trumpet have some similarities: range, the shape, the feeling of it and some more abstract things.
KD: You’ve done a lot of work with Richie Beirach. Do you have more CDs planned with him?
DL: In the last ten years we have about four or five records. A guy who used to have a label, CMP, has helped us. We’re playing a festival in June up in the wine country of San Francisco, featuring Billy Hart all week. We have a duo CD coming out called Balladscapes which is mostly standards and ballads. We have a big project with the NDR in Hamburg in December with Mike Gibbs arranging our tunes for the big band. Richie and I have maintained our relationship for nearly fifty years and we’re marking it off with several projects in the next few years. He’s been an integral part of my life with a fifteen or twenty year break in between and a major influence on me because of his knowledge and skills on the piano. Our rapport, socially and musically, was already established in 1969.
KD: I know it is more challenging since Richie lives and works in Europe. But you still get over to Europe several times a year, don’t you?
DL: A lot, sometimes I go twice a month. It’s slowing down a bit due to economics and what’s going on politically. That’s where I make my living, financially, in Europe, because traditionally, supporting the arts is what they do. There is money for the opera, theater and a bit at least for jazz. Though it is going down for twenty or thirty years, it was unbelievable. One country would rise, another would fall with funding and of course, American musicians were the beneficiaries because we were ‘the roots.’ Now Europeans have their own stuff and their own schools. They’re doing great and have their own musical world now. I’m lucky to have made so many associations there with European musicians. I’m going to Italy in a couple of weeks with guys I’ve been playing with for ten years. Then to Marciac for a duet concert with Bobo Stenson, who I’ve been playing with since the eighties. In the eighties I could see the writing on the wall meaning that the situation in America was not getting any better. And as we know it wasn’t great to start with as far as jazz goes. Popularity-speaking or being able to maintain a living, I realized it would be best for me to make myself available to European musicians. It worked out well because they wanted me because of my experience and for me it meant going into countries where they had a different way of playing. Scandinavians really do have a different way than the Italians. There’s something in the culture that separates them. I was able to visit all these countries and hear the influences that I wanted to take home with me. It was and still is a very good deal and I’m fortunate to have Europe as a place to maintain my artistic life.
KD: There are several pianists in Europe with whom you’ve worked: Franco D’Andrea, Roberto Tarenzi for example.
DL: They bring something different to the plate with a different way of looking at things. We’re all jazz musicians, we all know Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, etc., but you can’t help but be a reflection of your culture. Of course, in the case of these countries, there is an existing culture of classical and folk world music. You go into France and you’re looking at Debussy, Ravel, vaudeville, comedy. Is there as big a difference between Italian and French musicians now as there was? There’s less because everybody is being schooled now and that breeds uniformity, for better or worse, so we have a different period now. In my period, I can still see differences the way an Italian plays the blues next to a Swedish guy.
KD: As you said earlier, the every day life you’re exposed to is going to change the way you play.
DL: Absolutely! Everything right down to the food. Or drink!! It’s been very interesting; I’ve been the beneficiary of being able to be a visitor in these countries and welcomed with open arms. Some of my closest friends are these musicians.
KD: Concerning your current group, Expansions, pianist Bobby Avey blew me away when you first gave him exposure. Tell me how you came to work with him.
DL: He and the alto player, Matt Vashlishan are the same age and grew up where I live in the Pocono Mountain region of northeast Pennsylvania. As teenagers, they were around the scene and there is quite a good jazz situation here: the Deer Head Inn, recently passed on Phil Woods, Bob Dorough at 92 years old and others. First of all, there was a scene because it used to be a busy hotel area. Much like the Catskills for the Jewish people, this was called the Italian Catskills. So a lot of musicians came here to work. The Deer Head Inn, which is the oldest active club in America, was a center place to hang and play. There’s a lot of history in that place and it’s ten minutes from my house. There’s some high school and college programs; there’s the C.O.T.A. Festival every September that Phil started forty years ago, etc. So these younger guys are the beneficiaries of a positive musical environment. They would take lessons, be at the jam sessions and so on. Caris, my wife teaches ear training which she taught them. So it’s really full circle that I hired them to be a part of this new group and they’re both spectacular musicians. Bobby is especially a really unique artist. I feel that I’ve had a lot to do with his development, but I’m not the only one. We’ve been fortunate to live in an area an hour-and-a-half from New York, jazz-wise, that has more activity than most suburban areas in America.
KD: Which musicians who’ve played with you deserve wider recognition?
DL: Two for sure are Phil Markowitz, pianist, and Vic Juris, guitarist. Vic was with me for twenty plus years, on records you reviewed. He is one of the most equipped musicians that I’ve ever known and an amazing voice on guitar. He has a reputation, but he should be recognized more, no question about it. Phil Markowitz was also a part of the group with Vic during its first ten years of its twenty-three year duration. Phil is among he best musicians I’ve ever known…..that’s all I can tell you. He knows everything, plays everything, writes everything, teaches everything, etc. He is my co-teacher at the Manhattan School of Music for the Master’s degree program, sort of my assistant you could say teaching the concepts from my book on chromatic harmony, not an easy task!. He played with Chet Baker and Mel Lewis and others. Those two guys, who I’ve had daily contact with at times and still do with Phil pop up in my mind as ‘Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.’ I always enjoy playing with Marc Copland in duo and a quartet, he’s another great musician, though he has more of a reputation than the other two.
KD: When I heard Phil on Marian McPartland’s show, I found his compositions to be so striking, particularly “Taxi Ride.” Then he’s famous for that piece Bill Evans recorded, “Sno’ Peas.”
DL: I put him right up there with Chick Corea for abilities across the board, a guy who can do almost everything. I’m pretty widespread, but I’m not that much. When I see somebody who can go north, east, south and west more than I can, believe me, I notice it. Just to finish with this subject, piano players are by and large, all geniuses, one way or the other. They have to be. I mean, ten fingers on an instrument with four hundred years of history!! if you’re going to do it right, you have to be on the case completely. When everyone brings in a tune, the best one is always the piano player’s. It’s just part of the m.o. of the instrument.
KD: Tell me about your composition process. Do you work on computer, piano, occasionally picking up your soprano? How does something evolve from an idea to a finished work for you?
DL: Well, you caught me right in the middle of something that I am excited about involving a recording I am leading with Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Kenny Werner. It’s being financed a good friend, Kurt Renker, who had a great label out of Germany for years, CMP. What I’m trying to do is a two-pronged attack. Number one, you’ve read my book and you know my background, so you know I talk a lot about the loft situation in the late sixties and the early seventies…..the way we were living, the way we played, the organization I founded, Free Life Communication, etc. Dave Holland lived underneath me in a loft building on West 19th street in Manhattan. I had met him in London in 1967 before Miles hired him. When he came to New York to join Miles, he moved in on the floor below to be followed shortly after by Chick Corea on the first floor. There was a lot of music coming out of that building and most of it, by the way was free jazz, the model being Coltrane’s “Ascension”. We would have a bunch of horns playing together, pretty chaotically (laughs) with a lot of energy. I have tapes from that period. It was an era which is essentially forgotten in jazz history. It was not commercial music and it certainly had nothing to do with fusion. Free jazz was chaotic and difficult to listen to….basically for musicians only….I have to say that. But it was a period of our development when we would get together with the people I’m mentioning: Bob Moses, Lenny White, Carl Schroeder, Mike and Randy Brecker, Richie Beirach…..some known, some not known. We would not say a word and just start playing for hours on end. My loft was one of the centers of that activity. Well, I want to remember that period before it’s too late. I don’t mean to be morbid about the passing of my generation, but we’re getting on in years and we played a certain way then that has never been addressed since. That’s one aspect of why I want Dave and Jack together on this record. The other aspect is the compositional thing, more to your question. I don’t know if you know the record I did called “Water” with Metheny from ’97. It was a depiction of the element of water in its various manifestations: baptism, flooding, sustenance and so forth. Then I did “Air” a few years later with a genius computer guy, Walter Quintus…. again a depiction of the various manifestations of the element of air. “Fire” is next with the four tunes titled “Sparks” Flames” “Inferno” and “Ashes.” In each tune I have a melody that I feel depicts the feeling of those titles with voicings that I worked out on the piano, all of a 12 tone nature. So when you ask me about the compositional process, I usually start with an idea. I work very creatively with a mental image of an object, a place, a person, a feeling, literal images for sure. Of my four or five hundred tunes about eighty percent have some kind of story behind them, some are of course just musical devices. For the most part, my compositions have a programmatic thing. Whether anybody gets it or not (laughs), I don’t know. I do write liner notes for information. For me the piano is usually first possibly followed by the horn or drums, depending on what the emphasis is musically in the piece. In fact, with these fir pieces as we speak, I’m just now in the process of bringing in the horns into it, playing the soprano, flute and tenor melodies and seeing how they work. So I go from the piano to the horns and back and forth over the next couple of weeks. I don’t use the computer, I never learned how to do it and I don’t have time to learn. I work pretty much at the piano because I’m pretty good so I can get things done there. I write tunes in one of several categories that I’ve delved into for years, maybe something for a duo, or a trio without a piano or guitar, for quartet, something for three horns and so on. I don’t usually go for more than five or six people….I’ve never written for big band. I do have string, sax and woodwind quartets. It’s a process and happens only when I have time to be able to stretch it out over a couple of weeks, just keeping going to the piano over and over again reviewing the music. I just wrote a tune, an all twelve key major piece called “Happy B Day” which means Happy Birthday. After all, someone, somewhere is celebrating a birthday every day! So it’s a process which I love because I really think that you find out who you are musically in composition even more than playing. At some point of one’s development. To put it in plain English, you’re faced with you; this is you looking at you. You have nowhere else to look. You can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s the bass player’s not playing it right,’ ‘Oh, I didn’t write it correctly,’ etc. When you sit down at the piano, or the computer, for those people who do that, you’re faced with who you are and what you really want, not based on the moment, which is what improvisation is. But the choice between an F and an F sharp. Why do you want the F and can you back it up? To me, it’s almost psychological and quite revealing, because you’re faced with yourself and your musical decisions. With time to decide, not the case when we improvise. It’s good for your development.
KD: One thing I’ve been convinced of during many years of listening to your music, yours is a very, very emotional and often, very challenging music. I don’t put on Dave Liebman for background music, I want to be engaged. That’s not to say you’re not capable of playing a quiet ballad that could be used as background music, but I find your music constantly stimulating, you constantly seem to be probing, expanding. This is probably a silly question because of how long you’ve been playing, but do you have a wish list of artists that you want to collaborate with but haven’t had the opportunity?
DL: Yeah, I’d love to play with Herbie (Hancock), doing standards in duo situation. When Tony Williams was alive, I would have liked to have played with him. I did play with McCoy a few gigs. After all, you want to play with your heroes like I did with Wayne Shorter for a Japan concert we did called “Live Under The Sky” which was a tribute to Trane. That was a great experience just to be playing those tunes with him.
KD: Well, there are promising young musicians coming along that you’re going to be looking forward to playing with.
DL: That’s the Bobby Aveys of the world. You have to remember, I’ve been teaching for years now and have a very good vantage point for hearing the young folks. In a way I’m sitting at the top of the pyramid looking at the hundreds of students that I’ve had over the years, the talent and amazing skills they have these days. I love playing with them, but nothing is like playing with the people who influenced you….that’s dramatic, to play with McCoy, Elvin, Jack…..like that. These are people who, if it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be who you are. It’s a thrill.
KD: Do you have other projects in the works or in the can?
DL: This duo record with Richie (Beirach), “Balladscapes” will be released by the Intuition label. I just finished mixing another one with Richie yesterday for which I have to find a label. It features a singer who loved our music in the seventies and kind of disappeared for thirty years. He wrote lyrics for a bunch of our tunes. His name is Fred Farell, not someone you would know, but a beautiful voice with a deep feeling. It’s all ballads and very beautiful. Expansions’ next recording will be live tracks put out once again by Whaling City Sound. I actually have a label behind me, that’s an amazing thing in 2016. The man in charge, Neil Weiss is very supportive of the music and has had the label for quite awhile, out of Massachusetts. Then there’s the aforementioned “Fire” recording with no label as of this time. I have to do “Earth” which will hopefully be an Expansions recording with some extra guests. I’m always three to five years ahead. I still have Jerome Kern to do for example and Stephen Sondheim. I have six tunes already for Jerome! I don’t run out of projects, as you know. Of course the business has changed meaning the ability to be able to do things has been curtailed a lot. For me who has been so productive over the years, there’s a natural slowing down that’s happening. Number one because of the marketplace and number two because you’re older. When you’re older, you’re not the center of attention as you were when you were young….that’s the way things are. So I appreciate these benefactors like Kurt and Neil who come in to help. Remember Mozart lived off of grants. His father would pull up in front of a palace and the old man would go in and say, ‘My son Amadeus is a killer. You’ve got to hear him play.’ The eight-year-old would run in, blow on ‘Giant Steps’ in front of the king and the king would say, ‘Okay, write me something.’ ‘Okay, that means putting us up for a week and you’ll have your sonata for flute and violin next week.’ He and most of the others in the past lived off of patronage and we’re back to that because the business has disappeared and downsized to almost nothing, as far as developing an artist, promotion, going on tour, having a three record deal for continuity, etc. That’s completely almost over. Guys are playing for free and paying to play. My daughter is doing jazz promotion in New York. She just started at twenty four years old and doing great because her function is needed, even with the way the business is. She works for all these guys who come to her to get a review from you. If you or one of your compatriots reviews a record by John Jones and his band, which is probably a great record, that’s considered like what used to be sales of 5000. If you sold 3000 records, you were a hit. Now getting a review is the big goal which MAYBE means a gig at Cornelia Street for the door. It’s really frustrating for the young (artists). I don’t know how they are going to last….I’m very pessimistic about the situation. My time came, I had my fun and I will last because of who I am. But these kids, to get noticed and make any kind of living playing their music is seemingly impossible with of course exceptions. On top of this, the younger generation is way overqualified for the job….they are so educated and informed. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the next generation. The floor’s been taken away from them. The business has just pulled the rug out from under them.
KD: People like Phil Woods, you and other musicians took on all kinds of gigs when you were young: weddings, bar mitzvahs, maybe even funerals.
DL: We did, but even that’s disappeared because now there’s somebody who’s a DJ. Look at Broadway, the synthesizer covers the job of eight people. it’s the world, it’s the newspaper, films, everything. We don’t know how to make a living in the middle of this stuff because why should people pay for something when they can get it free?
KD: There is some wealth among some jazz fans of our generation who are going to continue to be patrons. An example is a label like ArtistShare that concentrates on fan-funded projects.
DL: We did Saxophone Summit for that label….. “Visitation” a fantastic record. We didn’t sell anything through them. Is that because we didn’t do our job and promote ourselves that they need like what did I write last night for tune number 10, etc? I don’t have time or interest to do that, though a young person would. ArtistShare is a young man’s game and it’s fine, but for you to get across, make sales and make any money is almost impossible. Maria Schneider hit gold, but you can name three people that hit gold with that label and that’s it. It’s the best they can do and I obviously support it and took part in it, but the bigger picture is pretty dismal as far as the future. Why would people do this if they can’t make a living? If we take away their source of income, why should they even go out and play instead of stay in their houses and enjoy music the way a normal fan does? Then you have a kid and a family and everything changes. There’s little choice then. These students are amazing these days because they have the internet to learn from at fourteen years old. Between my generation teaching everywhere and writing books, we have even explained twenty different ways to go to the bathroom (laughs). We have stepped on our toes, because my generation made it like this. We said, ‘You want to understand it? Okay, we’ll explain it.’ The guys before us, if they said three words to you about music, it was amazing. Then our generation comes and says, ‘Now what do you do when you see a C-7 chord, Dave?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, go to the bar and get me a drink.’ No, that doesn’t work. It’s called the Lydian scale and you can do a passing tone between the four and the three, etc…… ‘Okay, let me go home and practice it.’ We’ve had the academization of jazz which started out being completely ear music. Did Louis Armstrong write anything down? It’s unbelievable. It only took a hundred years. Incredible!!
KD: I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you and I don’t mean to keep you any longer.
DL: Well, I appreciate your time, Ken, and such wonderful questions. I really appreciate that you know so much about me. I’m always touched when someone says, ‘I really listen to your music and I understand what you’ re trying to do.’ I appreciate that, it’s not that often.
KD: Musicians like you make it really easy. When I work with editors, I try to get assignments of people who I am really fascinated with. I thank you for your wonderful music.
DL: Thanks, Ken.