David Liebman got his start in the early ’70s as a sideman on saxophone for such esteemed leaders as John McLaughlin, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis. Like so many others, he was initially inspired by John Coltrane, which is one of the reasons Liebman pursued and is best known for his soprano sax work, creating a nimble, pliable and surprisingly muscular sound on the instrument. Always a prolific leader who does a wide variety of projects, Liebman has released 40 albums in the past decade alone. He’s also got a myriad of gigs coming up.
Now 64 years old, Liebman isn’t exactly an elder statesman by modern standards of aging, but recognition has been coming in of late with honorary degrees and celebrations for his longtime work as one of the founders and artistic director of International Association of Jazz Schools. Perhaps most impressive is that fact that he’s been selected as a 2011 NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts, an honor he’ll receive Jan. 11 during a gala event at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Fredrick P. Rose Hall in Manhattan.
All in all, the saxophonist seems to be as busy as he’s ever been. I caught up with him via phone at his home in Stroudsburg, Pa., to see what’s up.
In light of all this activity recently, did you or someone else have a dream saying you had limited time left on Earth?
I could appear that way [laughs]. No, no, nothing that dramatic. In some ways, in jazz you can’t control your timetable of events, such as the release of records. I still call them records. But, in general, I don’t know. I’m going through a nice little springtime, I guess. I’m feeling good.
It seems like there’s been a record a week for a while now.
We’ll call it the slow demise of our business: It’s not even close to what it was a few years ago. It now getting to the point where people won’t even be holding a CD in their hand much longer. Is there a feeling of urgency? In a certain way, I think we all feel it. Sure we have the Internet now, but a CD with your picture on it and the act of selling it seems to be in imminent danger of becoming extinct. So, in a way, I think everyone is in a rush because the format is doomed. This is in regards to physical product in your hands.
You can still go out and play a gig as a musician, though.
Yeah, that is true. We can play almost every night. Also, in jazz, unlike other styles of music, you get rewarded for your longevity. You gain slow, gradual respect over time, and that means your box office is just that much better. I wouldn’t say it’s a lot, but it allows you to make a living. You are treated with more respect as an elder than you are in just about any other field of music. Classical is similar: I used to say when I was younger, “Where is the reward?” It comes when you are older – the older you get, the more you get, and you keep getting better as a musician.
You’re 64. I wouldn’t say that you are a sage elder quite yet. Maybe 30 years ago, 64 would have been old, but not these days. You and Joe Lovano and Fred Hersch and others that age still seem to be in the middle of their career.
We used to be “young lions,” but now you can call us “maturing young lions” — from 50 to my age or 70. I’ve got neighbors like Phil Woods who will be 80, and Bob Dorough, who will be 86. Lee Konitz, who I have a lot of interaction with now, is in his 80s. These are guys who are the elder statesmen.
So then how does it feel to be named an NEA Jazz Master?
In the greater scheme of things, it means something to people outside the music, to the guy who delivers your mail and stuff like that. It’s public recognition. People say, “He’s a musician who travels all over the world, but what does he do?” You can then say, “He’s a guy who got an award from the government.” The main thing for me is being at all considered in the same group as all those other musicians who in the last 20-plus years who have received the award. I have to pinch myself when I think of that. I’m not Miles Davis, so to be up there with those guys is a privilege and a thrill.
It’s nice to get it while you are still working. It’s almost like its for work past, present and future.
I’m not sure how they pick it. Maybe when I receive it in three weeks I’ll find out [laughs]. I don’t have much confidence in government in general, but now after they picked me I’m beginning to think there is a ray of light about how things are going.
You jumped into the education a lot earlier than many jazz musicians out there. How did that happen?
I began to get involved in the late ’70s. Then in the ’80s it became a thing that I was doing. Not many were at that time. I always tell a story of Freddie Hubbard. I live in Stroudsburg, and nearby is East Stroudsburg, which has a state university. And there is a guy in the music program there who brings in guests to lecture. He brought Freddie Hubbard to play with the community band, and, of course, part of the gig was to give a clinic. There at 3 o’clock in the afternoon was the greatest trumpeter who ever lived, and who could be a bad boy, and he was talking straight and sane, and with humility to maybe 80 or 100 people. I went back to say hello and he told me that he’d never done one of these in his life. So if Freddie Hubbard was doing this in the early ’90s, you knew that jazz education had truly arrived. By then, it was ensconced. But when I started to do it, it was early on. There were still questions about whether you could even teach jazz. How do you teach creativity? Questions like that. Before I would say that there was no way to teach creativity, but by the ’80s there was a demand. So I had to figure out how to talk about it. Figure out what I was doing and how to explain it to someone else.
Two recent albums have been tributes to the music of others. How did the album ‘ Lieb Plays the Blues a la Trane’ happen?
I did it with my regular group and it was just another gig, but rather than doing the book [of songs] that we usually do — which was Kurt Weill and Alec Wilder, composers whose work I’d covered with this trio — I just decided to go in and play straight ahead and some blues. It ended up sounding good.
Based on the liner notes, the Ornette Coleman album ‘Turnaround’ was more of a process.
Yes, that was real project that was on the list – I have a long list of ideas that I want to see to fruition – and that was something I’d wanted to do. The idea was to take his melodies, which are so great, and add a little bit of harmony and see how they sound. That album turned out great and it even got an award in Germany, where it was released. Ornette is an amazing person. His melodies and his melodic sense are astounding. He has endless melodies and hundreds of tunes. I thought it would be really great to get into his music. Coltrane has been with me since the beginning, but with Ornette I was able to really jump in in a way that was far more casual than just listening to the music. It was a great learning experience, which is why I do these things. The only reason I do these albums is to try and figure it out and get into their head.
It can be like talking to Buddha to talk to Ornette, which can be frustrating, but how is it to play his music?
He talks in riddles. That’s part of his thing. But what you see is what you get with his music. I find it very easy to understand. There are five things in music: rhythm, harmony, melody, color and form. He took melody and just exploded it. He has color, as well, because he has a certain sound that he gets out of his saxophone. His music is very singsongy and folky. When it’s played by his quartet, or Prime Time, or strings, you have to follow the solos, which is something else, but the songs themselves go right to the heart of what it is all about. It’s not like Monk or Wayne Shorter; it’s much more apparent in my eyes.