Andy Hamilton caught up with David Liebman between his masterclass and concert in Manchester
with guitarist Phil Robson's group, featuring bassist Aidan O'Donnell and Liebman's old partner, drummer Jeff Williams. This was the conclusion of a brief UK tour which began with a two night residence at the Vortex in London. I met the saxophonist in the RNCM cafeteria, a throwback to British cuisine of the 60s. But we were not downcast - David was going to eat elsewhere later, and anyway was in talkative mood. As time was quite limited, his verbal tempo in fact seemed to speed up through the interview, but not at the expense of his musical wisdom and good sense. He is, I reckon, one of the most astute and articulate commentators on the music as his sleevenotes to the Mosaic boxed set of The Complete Blue Note Elvin Jones Sessions attest.
The tenor and soprano player is inevitably best known for his work in the late 60s and early 70s with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis. But sin ce that early exposure, Liebman has proved himself the real deal as a peripatetic improvising musician. Though in the interview he makes the case for leading one's own band, the gig with Robson's group turned out to be inspired, featuring an excellent mix of originals by the guitarist, plus some standards.
David Liebman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1946. In high school and college, he studied with Lennie Tristano and Charles Lloyd, and graduated with an American History degree from New York University. After periods with Pete La Roca, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, Liebman led his own groups, notably Lookout Farm with pianist Richie Beirach. In 1978, he formed his Quintet with John Scofield and Kenny Kirkland, then created the group Quest with Richie Beirach in 1981. Liebman’s present group formed in 1991 includes guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko. Liebman is the author of several books including A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody, and Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound, and has taught at many universities and clinics around the world.
Liebman learned classical piano first, then from age 12 took up clarinet. He was attracted to
tenor from early rock 'n' roll - Duane Eddy, Bill Doggett, Bill Haley's "Rock Around The
Clock" – and finally his parents allowed him to take up the instrument. He attended a dance-band workshop on Saturday mornings, and his long gig-playing career soon began, as he explains:
At the workshop, you learned how to play club dates. In those days dance music was standards, cha-chas, mambos, "Anniversary Waltz", Jewish songs and Italian songs...By 13 years old I was already working in the Catskill Mountains near New York, in a little resort for $15 a week. That's how I grew as a musician. 1960 or 61, when I was getting interested in playing jazz, was when Stan Getz's "The Girl From Ipanema", and Brubeck's "Take Five" appeared–and also Coltrane's "My Favourite Things", and Horace Silver hits, and Herbie Mann's "I'm Coming Home Baby". An interested teenager living in Brooklyn would most likely hear those people, because they were more available. Stan Getz was not really a influence on me, I felt he was a little corny.
Andy Hamilton: But you very rapidly moved on to Coltrane.
Dave Liebman: Yes, he was by far my most important early influence. There was really nobody before him, as far as influence goes. I wish I had heard Charlie Parker first, but nobody turned me on to him [at that time]. In sequence would have been nice. Even with Coltrane, it wasn't in sequence, because when I came in it was Live At The Village Vanguard. I had little idea that he played straightahead chord-changes with Miles, and I certainly didn't know what "Giant Steps" was.
AH: When did you first see Coltrane?
DL: When I was 15, in 1961. He was opposite the Bill Evans Trio. I first went to Birdland a few months before, and when I came back there was the sign–Bill Evans Trio, and John Coltrane Quintet. I didn't know either. In those days everything was double-billed – from the mid-60s
it changed. They played two sets each. I saw Thelonious Monk more times than I wanted to,
opposite John Coltrane. It wasn't like they matched up the show, it was whoever was around.
I had no idea who Coltrane was, except there was a picture of him playing soprano. I thought, "That's the guy I'm reading about in Downbeat who plays soprano". We went in, and you could hardly hear Bill Evans, [the audience] was very noisy. When Coltrane appeared, I couldn't work out anything that was going on – it sounded like he was practising, all this squeaking and squawking...When the alto-player appeared, who was Eric Dolphy, that made a little more sense to me. During the closing number, the woman sitting next to me said, "That's 'My Favourite Things'
from The Sound of Music", and I said "No way – from that corny movie?" Whatever it was, it compelled me to return again and again. I saw him dozens of times over the years, till he died.
Seeing Coltrane was a rev elation...He became more than a model, he became an obsession.
The music had a core of energy and what we'd now call spirituality. I was a kid, I'm not identifying with that – but it was something that drew me back. They were fierce, they were playing two hour tunes sometimes...They were really hitting hard, Elvin was playing at the top of the volume level. I was sitting from 9 till 3 in the morning, hypnotised. That was my model – and remains my model.
AH: What was the reaction of audiences?
DL: With Trane it was like a revival meeting – people were screaming. The clubs were for the
most part packed. He was a star. He had played with Miles Davis, which was the top of the
food-chain for a sideman at that time. Plus "My Favourite Things" was a verifiable hit, like "All Blues" was a hit, and like "Sidewinder" and "Song For My Father" became a hit. These things were reduced down to 45's, and on jukeboxes. You saw John Coltrane next to Elvis Presley – he was definitely known.
AH: And Sonny Rollins?
DL: I got into Sonny, of course I did, you had to. But I didn't see him as much – he didn't play as
much. When I did see Sonny Rollins it never approached the intensity of Trane live, and he rarely kept the same band together for much time. Whereas with Coltrane, we know the band intimately. With Sonny, it was hard for me as a young person to be so impressed by the performance. When you're young, the first thing you respond to is speed, power, intensity. Coltrane was like a rock band compared to anybody else! Of course later I came to Sonny Rollins from a technical standpoint – I know his music intimately, and from '55 right to the end of the '60s he's a monumental force. He and Trane are the two trees of the modern saxophone. Steve Grossman and I – he was my crony in the 70s and played with Elvin and Miles, we criss-crossed for a while – we used to have a running joke, we'd go up to someone exceptions are not musically as sophisticated as the Tin Pan Alley tunes. So there's not this never ending contemporary repertoire like Charlie Parker had. Also the young players are not coming up in the apprenticeship system as I did – they are playing with their peers. They want to write their own material in a kind of vibe of a rock band, even though it may not be the same language. And finally, the bottom line is the computer – it's easier to write now. I had to struggle to write things on the piano.
AH: Finally, can you tell me your favourite albums of your own?
DL: It's really apples and oranges. The solo record The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner probably stands alone because it's solo soprano (with overdubs), and solo is the final frontier. You are responsible for everything, you can't look to your left or right [for support]. It was made in 1986 when I was 40 years old, and I put a long of work into it. I like Classique with string, wind and sax classical type quartets on Owl, the stuff with Richie Beirach and Quest, and my Miles Away and Homage to Coltrane records on Owl. And I like the Puccini arias record I did on Arkadia (Walk in the Clouds). I'm pretty proud of them!
AH: You are quite prolific.
DL: I would say so! We try to keep going.
Forthcoming albums include Seraphic Light (Telarc) with Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, appearing in May; a Mosaic boxed set Pendulum
Live From The Village Vanguard 1978 in June; and a HatArt disc with Ellery Eskelin.
David Liebman's website is http://www.davidliebman.com/.
For a major interview with Liebman on artistic creativity, go to
Published in Jazz Review, April-May 2008