By Don Heckman
Earlier this year, Dave Liebman received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. And it was about time. At 64, Liebman can look back on a remarkable sequence of achievements, on his own and in association with the likes of Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and more.
But his performance Friday night at Vitello’s was a convincing display of the fact that Liebman – despite his already significant “lifetime achievements” – still has much to say and do as a cutting edge jazz saxophonist, composer and leader.
All three of those attributes were manifest in his work with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko. And the lengthy history of the group – Juris and Marino have been with Liebman for twenty years, Marcinko for ten – was also a factor in a performance enlivened by the near-symbiotic interaction among the players.
Liebman limited himself to soprano saxophone and, on one piece, a small wooden flute. The music, mostly originals, tended to position Liebman’s soprano amid a simmering cauldron of rhythm, sometimes driven by hypnotic vamps, sometimes arcing into off-center meters.
Each of the players balanced their rhythmic togetherness with passionate soloing – Juris blending sound and phrase in long, soaring lines, Marino surging across low register landscapes with ease, and Marcinko using his jazz drum kit as a virtual treasure chest of percussion sounds and timbres.
In the highlight of the set, Liebman played his tiny flute in an intimate, vocalized rendering of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” – a selection from his soon to be released album, Turnaround: the Music of Ornette Coleman, which has already received Germany’s Preis Der Deutschen Schallplatten Kritik (German Record Critics Prize) award. The performance was stunning, its atmospheric dynamics perfectly capturing the dark intentions of Coleman’s memorable line.
What was most remarkable about the Liebman set, in its entirety, was the fact that it was utterly contemporary, cutting edge, envelope-stretching jazz in which the music nonetheless reached out to engage the listeners. At a time when ego-focused technique and virtuosity make too many jazz sets into fast-fingered personal showcases, Liebman and his players reminded us that the best jazz – classic or contemporary – always has the power to touch the emotions.
Photos by Tony Gieske. To read and see more of Tony’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.