David Liebman Quartet, July 19, Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown.
Every time David Liebman takes the stage, one imagines the disembodied spirits of John Coltrane and Miles Davis nodding in approval. Ever since the 66-year-old Brooklyn native took sax and flute lessons from bebop giants Lennie Tristano and Charles Lloyd as a young man, then recorded and toured with Miles Davis and Coltrane’s favorite drummer, Elvin Jones, Liebman has carried a sense of responsibility to these legends with him wherever he goes.
This is not to say that Liebman is all about nostalgia, or set in his musical ways. He has played and recorded in all manner of configurations — big band, duos, trios and quartets — and every imaginable style, from bebop to Brazilian, free jazz to standards and even rearranged Puccini arias. In short, Liebman never stops moving forward, all the while keeping a close watch on the legacy he more or less inherited.
On July 19, at 8 p.m., at Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall, Liebman will perform with his quartet — guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, drummer Marko Marcinko.
“I pull on four decades of music, so I feel like part of the old guard, but that’s not meant in any condescending way,” said Liebman by phone from his Pennsylvania home. “I do represent some aspect of the tradition forged by Coltrane, Miles, Elvin Jones, and so forth. And I really feel responsible to keep it alive while also being alert to young players and all the various new places jazz is going.”
Liebman has led jazz into some of these new places. Indeed, marking his vast musical contributions, the National Endowment of the Arts named him a “Jazz Master” for 2011. He was a driving force of the loft jazz scene in New York during the 1970s and a member of Ten Wheel Drive, one of the first of the jazz fusion bands. But he has never stayed in one place for too long.
“You had to do it by trial and error when I was coming up,” said Liebman. “There were no finishing schools for jazz. Luckily, New York was a great place to learn, lots of clubs where it was played live all over the city.”
Liebman’s big break came when the flinty Davis asked the young saxophonist/flautist to join him in the studio to record albums now considered classic, On the Corner and Get Up With It. On these, Liebman’s most noteworthy contribution may have been his flute playing on “He Loved Him Madly,” a lengthy, psychedelicized track that one pundit has called “the Maggot Brain of jazz.”
“Obviously I would have to have been braindead not to know that playing with Miles Davis was momentous and important,” he said. “No question, he was a prickly personality, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, but in the studio and on the stage, Miles was all business. You were paid to be 100 percent there with him as a musician.”
Liebman thinks what makes a “classic” recording is something of a beautiful mystery.
“Look at Trane [John Coltrane]. He recorded his Giant Steps and then played on Miles’ Kind of Blue within a month of each other. Both are totally different, both are now musical milestones. And yet, if he thought about how they’d be received he probably never would have gotten out of bed in the morning,” says Liebman laughing. “There was a lot of traffic for musicians back then. Each session was a musical challenge, but you are also making a living.”
Liebman promises a “variety of things” at the Wesleyan gig.
“It really depends on the audience, the vibe, the size and even the sound of the room. I don’t really know until I see all this,” said Liebman. “I’ll have my martini, then check out the crowd from backstage and draw up a set list. I can quote from a huge repertoire, everything from Ornette [Coleman] to [Antonio Carlos] Jobim to Cole Porter.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times