On Jazz Composition and Other Matters (2017)


JS (Javier Subatin): Can you tell me how was your musical education?

DL (David Liebman): My musical education was not in conservatory. I didn’t go to school for music. It was with a variety of different teachers. I had a piano teacher for some years before saxophone. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was in an ensemble workshop for learning how to play with other people. I took lessons for one year with Lennie Tristano, and at another time for a year with Charles Lloyd. But they weren’t so much lessons as just hanging out and niticing things, asking questions and so on. The bottom line is that I did not have a formal musical education.


JS: Was your education orientated towards composition?

DL: No, it was saxophone and improvising. Composition was something I had to study myself by observing the work of other people, my peers, the masters and a lot of what we say in English is trial and error……just trying to see if something works or not, asking questions, above all being interested in self-improvement. But most of my jazz education be it improvising or composing was autodidactic, basically self-teaching.


JS: Can you describe your compositional process?

DL: I often write from an idea, an image, a person, an event, a place I was at, or imagine I was at. I would consider myself as a programmatic composer. In other words, if you say the sky to me, or the color red, I immediately hear something, maybe a melody or a rhythm or a texture, or maybe a harmonic progression and that’s the where I begin something on the page. There are also many compositions – I have over 400 compositions – that are just musical challenges; let’s say, a study of the interval of the fourth or a study involving the diminished scale. These compositions are in essence musical problems to be solved. But I most enjoy writing from an image or an idea because it helps me get my imagination going.


JS: Do you have some composition techniques that you use usually?

DL: No, except matters concerning what not to do, which are mostly technical things. Like if I write voicings, to avoid doubling any notes unless I really want that to be an emphasis of a certain pitch. Or maybe being sure that the baseline and melody have a good relationship besides what goes on in the middle, which is the harmony. Or for example and depending on the composition, if I am purposely trying for the piece to be melodic, I will “test” that relationship by playing the melody with the bass line, sans rhythm or harmony to see if the melody stands by itself, not dependent on the proscribed harmony. So yes, there are some guidelines that are musical, and some that are just common sense. Most of all, gathering experience of having done it for so many years is crucial. After a while you know what to avoid and what to use.


JS: What do you think about the relationship between composition and improvisation?

DL: For me is very clear. Now I am slightly exaggerating to make a point, but when you play a composition you are basically in the business of problem-solving….the “problem” is obviously not mental or physical, but purely musical like maybe a chord prgoression or the use of a interval set, etc, etc. You see am going to play my compositions, so it should be something that challenges me in an improvisational situation, makes me have to solve something. An historical example of solving a harmonic problem is, of course, Giant Steps, for example. A historical example of playing in a 3/4 time, at an up tempo with many diatonic changes may be a song like Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans, etc. So, when you write a song it is inherently something that you are trying to work out. That should be the first order of business when your play an original composition especially, though the same challenge exists for standards, except those problems are being put on you by anther composer rather than yourself. I am back to auto-didacticism….it becomes YOUR challenge to figure out the puzzle. What is the musical situation here that needs to be addressed? Of course this assumes that the normal challenges are always being taken care of: good time and good sound and good pitch and all that. Also, another point is that when you are writing there are several possible scenarios that you are writing for. For example there are some people who have their compositions played by others: Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, Wayne Shorter and more. So from the practical standpoint there is the monetary possibility that other people play your songs and you make what we call royalties. That’s of course possible, and it’s not a bad thing to be sitting home in your bedroom, open the mail and get a check for royalties that happened ten thousand miles away three months ago! Of course, hopefully this is not your main reason to compose (maybe this is more evident in pop music?). If you are fortunate enough to have an organized band to play your original compositions, this will contribute to the overall success of a performance, because everyone is collectively dealing with that specific musical challenge. This translates in the best of groups to a common language shared by band members towards the goal of getting the band to have a unique and personal sound from the artistic aspect.


JS: So, we can say that you see composition and improvisation as different, but related processes?

DL: in the end, a composition is improvisation slow down. That’s another reason why it is very important for students to write music, because when you are composing, I have to assume that when you sit at the piano or the computer or the guitar, you have to decide between an F and an F#, and there should be a musical reason for you to make a choice. Over years that means one’s mind and way of thinking becomes more fine tuned, more sophisticated, more ready to handle the improvisational situation where you have actually no time. So, they are very opposite processes in a sense. I am a little jealous of composers that can sit all day and make a choice between C and C#, really putting time on it. I don’t have that kind of time but I do obsess sometimes over a particular voicing or chord. Again, what you are really doing is raising your level of observation, of discrimination of what to do and as well developing an artistic ethos of what you trying to say and an understanding of the tools at hand. When you are composing you have to come up against those questions. When you are improvising, you are not supposed to be thinking about that stuff. You are supposed to be in the moment, in present time…..there should be no past and no future when you are improvising. Of course, that’s an ideal state of Zen-like character, but we try to do it every time we play.


JS: So, you can say that improvisation is essential to be a composer?

DL: You can be a composer without being an improviser, but in the jazz situation it is to your benefit as an improviser to understand the compositional implications. I’m not going to say it’s a rule, but you should somehow have some sense of improvisation if you are composing for a jazz situation. Classical, I can’t speak for. Maybe you don’t even have to play to compose…..I don’t know.


JS: What do you think about the relationship between the performance and the composition?

DL: If the performers are your choices like in a band for example, you can write something that enables them to show their best talents. Duke Ellington was known for this and Miles Davis to some extent….the ability to observe how someone plays, what their strengths are musically and write something directly for these aspects. Everybody doesn’t do everything. Everybody has some things they do best, and if you are a band leader or a composer who wants their composition to be played the way they hear it, there is a time to make those decisions. If I was a classical composer and I was commissioned by King Leopold as Mozart was, I would definitely want to listen to Leopold play a little bit before I write something that he can’t play. Of course, that’s an ideal world, meaning you know who is going to play it. It’s like serving a meal and knowing that this guy likes a lot of pepper and this guy likes a lot of salt, meanign take care of that in the kitchen before the food comes out. Your customer will appreciate that. This is a “dream” scenario and an ideal situation, which is often unrealistic, but the main point is that it would be good if you know who’s going to play what you are writing.


JS: On another topic, do you think we should consider jazz an American music solely?

DL: Jazz began as an American art form. There Is no question about that. It started in in New Orleans and Louis Armstrong started the whole deal. But jazz now is in 2017 officially one hundred years old. In that 100 years it has become internationalized, and in the last 20 or so years it has become a world music. Of course if you say world music in the usual way of seeing things that would mean some exotic music from Africa or wherever off the beaten path so to say. But to me, world music means all cultures have something to contribute to a particular form, in this case, jazz. And, because I teach so much in schools all over the world, I see only an increase in the interest from other countries. I was in China last year teaching, and they are really interested, even though no one knew who for example Miles Davis was. Buy you can believe they will get it, believe me! Jazz now includes all music from everywhere and all personalities and all peoples. It’s become homogenous. You can walk into a jam session in Nairobi and you could probably hear “Blue Bossa” or another common jazz tune. You could probably hear them improvising to some level of expertise, depending on who they are, and you can hear them using the jazz language in some ways as a basis. Jazz is the twentieth century equivalent to the 19th century designation of the Three B’s, meaning to be musically educated you had to know the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, and all that implies. The tools that made jazz what it is – improvising, the rhythm, the way of looking at harmony, etc., have become part of pop music and to some degree even classical. The idea that you can “improvise” over let’s say a tone row, let alone chord changes is something that interests modern classical peformers worldwide to one degree or another. Jazz has definitely become international and it provides a framework from which you can grow. So, to me, if you want to learn music in the twenty-first century, a jazz education is the best vehicle for that information.


JS: Considering the jazz style as constantly evolving what period do you think jazz currently is in?

DL: It is in this world stage with contributions coming from people like you, from cultures other than American. If you are Portuguese or if you are South African, whatever the source, you can’t help but bring your musical culture into the music you are playing. This is desirable and it is needed in jazz to continue to have relevance because in my opinion jazz has outgrown its American roots. If you go from Louis Amstrong to John Coltrane, there isn’t much more that is “new” to use in jazz. We have a fantastic legacy but like all styles, times are changing and an art form has to evolve with what goes on around it. I think this world infusion will make jazz able to stay current and fresh rather than become a museum piece like some periods of classical msuic, ike the Baroque period. Jazz has always been an Inclusive art and this is just more of the same that I am describing. It is inevitable.




JS: Can you imagine a future jazz style?

DL: As I have alluded to above, we are in the globalization stage in world history, like it or not. Influences from all over are quickly realized through the internet and have almost an immediate effect no matter what or where the source comes from. This is one of the positives aspects of globalization meaning the sharing of knowledge. I can give you a lesson no matter where you physically are. We can overdub on each other’s recordings and most of all, with YouTube, you can see/hear anyone form anywhere from any time in recorded history. I can see John Coltrane not leaving my bedroom, and that is why we have this explosion of knowledge and of energy in jazz all over the world. It’s accessible now by a press of the button and this is a good thing.


JS: How your perspective is about the relationship between your work and jazz style?

DL: I’m a stylist. One of the goals of a jazz player, as far as one’s art and longevity are concerned is to have a sound and style that is identifiable from the first note. Jazz is first and foremost about individual expression within the matrix of a group. Jazz is about being able to transcend the quite sophisticated musical aspects beyond the technical and portray some feeling that comes within you, from your personality. It could be a thought, or a blue sky today…..while tomorrow it could be the political situation somewhere or whatever. But that’s not what’s important. The point is that you use the music to express something of importance that you feel and want others to recognize, be it literal or figurative. Is it really a blue sky I am expressing or is it something else? That’s up to the listener, but hopefully no matter what they comprehend, they can FEEL my passion. Technically, the bottom line is as soon as I put on music in jazz, one can tell who they are within four bars. On saxophone it could be Dexter Gordon or Joe Henderson, David Liebman or Michael Brecker, etc. If the player is an individualist, he/she has reached a certain plateau in jazz which is admirable and by the way takes a lot of work to achieve. And then there are artists in jazz who have gone beyond being a stylist to being innovators, affecting musicians on all instruments, If I say, Miles Davis, his influence goes across four/five different idioms of jazz that we could dissect now. The contribution can be massive, like Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, or Coltrane. Or it can be just the sound that David Sanborn gets when he plays a high B flat in a blues lick. You have a lot of possibilities to be and stylist, recognizable to those who know within a few notes. The artist’s task is to find how what it is that makes you sound like yourself. Historically for example, I am considered an artist who came from the post-Coltrane period in the development of jazz, meaning that I saw Coltrane live many times in the 1960s and in my case I played with two of his most important people in my early years, Miles Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. In a certain way I took the place of Coltrane, absorbing aspects of his massive style and transforming it to my own way of playing. I’m not pretending to be at that level, but I was very fortunate to be part of a generation that witnessed Coltrane playing and could absorb his innovations to employ in one’s own style.


JS: Which were the motivations that led you to develop your personal style?

DL: First of all, there has to be a way to find something in your playing that would demarcate you from the rest of the crowd. First on the list usually is one’s sound, just lile the human voice. More specifically it includes nuance and self expression that are unique to oneself. How do you express yourself? If we have five people lined up now, and we gave them something to read, you would hear the differences in accent, in innuendo, in everything…..just like I’m talking to you now. Of course this is only possible after repeated exposure to that person’s characteristics. So that guy is John; the next guys is Jerry; the next guy is Joe and so on. It’s like when somebody calls you on the telephone and says hello you know it is your cousin, your mother, your father, whomever, and you even know what they are feeling. This is probably true for five to ten people in your life. Back to the music, your goal is to find something in the sound, in the nuances, in the way you play, that separates you from the rest of the field. In jazz there are a handful that get to that personal best. Again, the first thing to do is figure out what you sound like, who is your main influence(s), etc. After absorption of someone ahead of you on the stylist line, one has to translate it into their own way of doing it so that you don’t sound like a clone. The goal is not to be a copy of Coltrane……you do not want to play like the master…..you want to use them and the and the tradition to find your own voice. Again takes a lot of work, sensitivity, and discipline and of course there are times when you feel like you are not reaching it and there are times when you feel great. That’s the ups and down of being an artist.


JS: Which do you think are the intrinsic characteristics of a music composition to be considered jazz?

DL: Improvisation, but it doesn’t have to be outright playing on chord changes or something technical like that…..it could be improvisation on a sound, or a texture, or I play something that is not improvised, but with an “improvisational” approach. To be jazz it should have some sense of improvisation. But remember Bulgarian music has improvisation, Indian music has some of the most sophisticated rhythmic improvisation on the planet. So, improvisation is not limited to just jazz musicians. To be jazz there should be present a certain rhythmic feel, which by the way is one of the main aspects, if not THE main aspect that characterizes one style of music from another. If I would name twelve different kinds of world music now, we would feel the difference in the rhythm and equally the sound of the instrument….sitar….duduk…. a certain wood flute or drum, etc., which is native to a particular place. You usually can tell the difference between cultures musically by the rhythm and the sound. Maybe this is because rhythm, when it comes down to it, is probably greatly if not all together influenced by the speech patterns of a particular locale, meaning the way people speak in a culture. Without getting too technical, jazz has a very city/urban feel to it because it grew up in cities of America. It started in our mid-west, moving on to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and finally New York. Again it is the rhythm that makes music sound like it comes from Portugal or Dakar or wherever. Jazz has a certain rhythm which we call “swing.” The most important lesson I give to students worldwide is how to imitate the way we speak in jazz which has to do with the rhythm……da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da. What it is written on paper and recognizable when you listen to jazz is not so easy to do. There is an underlining feeling of this kind of what we call”triplet feeling.” It descends from West Africa, but it got digested and developed in America as jazz.


JS: So, even with the globalization, the combination of jazz with other kinds of music or complex rhythms, you are saying that it’s always this feeling behind the music?


DL: Always is a big word. What I am saying is the essence of any kind of music can be found not necessarily in the melody or harmony (if there is even harmony which is for the most part absent from world music with exceptions), but for sure in the rhythm and SOUND of the specific instruments. If you are going to call it jazz, or in your case Portuguese music, there has to be something of the root of that music in what you are playing for it to be called such and such. If I go to a so-called French restaurant and there is nothing French on the menu it doesn’t make sense. With all we have discussed, in the final analysis the great thing about music, any music, is you can’t really be sure what you are talking about because music is in the air. We don’t hold it in our hands like a painting, a book or even watching a ballet. Once a sound is heard (if anyone is around to hear it!!), it is gone into the universe. It’s in the air. So, as soon as you say such and such has to be or should be about music, this means YOU are talking, not the music. Music has no right or wrong, time or place. We humans have given music designations and descriptions, but the truth is we cannot really be sure what we are taking about but one thing is definitely true…there is an energy, a spiritual force if you like that affects everyone who listens to great music, and then words are not needed or necessary.