An Interview with David Liebman
In His Own Words… A conversation with
by Fred Jung
I always lament about the fact that society as a whole is so prone to labeling and categorizing everything and everyone. And jazz is not exempt from such things. So it has been a wonderful journey to walk alongside one of the heavies of this music, Dave Liebman, through his musical progression. Liebman, who has shunned the glamour and glitz for a more modest goal, pursuing his music. I sat down with Liebman during his most recent tour through California. We spoke about views on recording, his time with Miles Davis, his love of Coltrane, his tenor playing, and his current and future projects. It is Liebman, uncut and in his own words.
JazzUSA: Let’s start from the beginning.
DL: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I started music in general at about nine years old playing classical piano with a neighborhood teacher. At about eleven, twelve years old, I always wanted to play the saxophone and my first inspiration really came from rock and roll music in the fifties, where the saxophone was a very dominant instrument. Slowly, I studied at a local neighborhood school and learned how to play dance music. So I was already working gigs at resorts, weddings, and so forth by the time I was fourteen years old. Of course, I started to meet other musicians who were young guys in high school who were into jazz and then began going to the clubs. For me, it was a subway ride to go to Birdland, and the Half Note, and the Village Vanguard. I guess the turning point was hearing Coltrane many times live during those years, the sixties, and just really getting turned on to, I didn’t have any idea what it was, but getting turned on to that energy and that power in the music. That remained with me and I went to school, New York University, majored in history. I thought I would be interested in doing music on the side. And when I got out, I worked my way, eventually, to Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, for a four year period between the two of them. Then I began as a leader in 1974. My first band was called Lookout Farms. Since that time, it’s been a career as a bandleader and recording with other people and so forth.
JazzUSA: Is Coltrane your main influence?
DL: It was always Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. That’s the major contributors. I have a lot of Sonny Rollins influence in my playing and right under that wing, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, the four main voices of the sixties and they were my main saxophone influences. There were other influences, Miles, Bill Evans, of course, the pianist, and again Elvin, who was a drummer, Tony Williams, McCoy, and Herbie. The saxophone was definitely Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. And they do represent the two major ways of approaching playing the saxophone for last fifty years.
JazzUSA: And your experience with Miles and Elvin?
DL: Well, it’s interesting, Fred. Today, I was at Half Moon Bay in the morning. We played there yesterday with Pete Douglas. I stayed in his beach house. We woke up in the morning and we had some time to talk and I was talking to him about it. The main thing that I got out of them, outside of the specifics, in Miles’s case there was certainly some specific musical things about phrasing and space and using the band, how to get a rhythm section going and timing and things like that. And of course with Elvin, time itself, rhythm. But outside of that, more important, which supersedes that really, is the intensity of which they did their job. It was very much like what I found about Coltrane. The group on the stage is one thing. I saw Coltrane. But it’s another thing to be in the storm itself, especially in my case, to be with Elvin after having seen him and after having him be the main inspiration, the partner of the main inspiring act that made me want to play, being on the stage with him was just incredible. Then of course with Miles, you knew who he was. The music was different, a different stage of band development and so on, but when they got on the stage, when they closed their eyes and started playing, it was a job to do and they did it. It was like the intensity that you would see, they would address the issue of playing, which I had never felt because I was a kid. I was in my twenties and I certainly had played with good guys, who now some of them are well known, of course, but we were all young. To be with a master, who you know has a legacy because it’s been on tape and record. You’ve heard it, seen it, and then to be right next to them and feel that energy, it’s something you can’t learn any other way. That really made me see that it was a much more serious business than I thought it was to play this music, to try and excel in it, and to try to improve. It’s a very serious affair, at least for those fifty minutes that you are on the stage.
JazzUSA: Do you recall your first Coltrane experience?
DL: Absolutely, Fred. It was Birdland. I was fifteen. It was 1961. I was taking a date for a big night. It was a Saturday night. I had really no idea who was playing. I knew Birdland because I would go out with some of the older guys from the high school. We got in and it was Bill Evans Trio and John Coltrane. I really didn’t know much about any of them. I remember it was pretty crowded and if you were under age at that time, Birdland allowed you to sit in what was called a Peanut Gallery, like at the last row. There was about four, five tables there and whoever got there first could stay all night. So we were back there and the Bill Evans Trio, well, I remember it was very noisy and you couldn’t really hear. The piano player had his head down and it looked like he was playing in his home, very introverted music so it didn’t leave much of an impression. And then, Coltrane came on and it was with Eric Dolphy. It ended up being that it’s the tapes from the Vanguard, the Village Vanguard sessions. It was that, I don’t know if it was that specific night, but it was period in the fall of ’61. It was incredible. They started playing a tune and she said it was “My Favorite Things” and I said, “Naw, it couldn’t be. How would he play something like that?” And of course, it was “My Favorite Things.” From then on, every time he played in New York, which was at least two or three times a year for a week or two at a time, I was there. It became something that was like a thing that I had to go to. And I would go to see him every Friday and Saturday night of the week that he was there and I wasn’t in school. I would take the subway and go with a friend of mine and sit from nine until three and watch him. It was unbelievable, the energy they played with, long tunes, sometimes an hour and a half, two hour tunes. Coltrane and Elvin could play a duet for forty-five minutes or over an hour, just the two of them. It was hypnotic and I kept saying, “Look, I play saxophone and that’s a saxophone and whatever that is, I’ve got to find it.” I was just completely turned on and it remains with me today.
JazzUSA: What was it about Coltrane’s playing?
DL: It was the, certainty, it wasn’t purely a musical thing because at that point, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know about it. I’m still trying to understand it. It was the intensity, the energy, and just the complete devotion and concentration and sincerity of which this group, four guys, Elvin, McCoy, and Jimmy Garrison, and Trane, played that was just compelling. It was so mysterious. It was so strong. It was so powerful and it was so understated in a certain way. There was no show about it. There was no talking. There was no announcements. It was just four guys who just got up to the bandstand like waking up in the morning and brushing their teeth. They were just doing it like it was commonplace, which it was for them because they worked a lot. I was just impressed by that, that whole imagine was getting me. The way they played, the power and the energy, which you can hear now of course on record and in videos and so forth, a little bit was so much more live that it was unbelievable. You really could sit very close, comparatively, so you could really, almost, physically feel it.
JazzUSA: The intensity that you refer to is very evident when you play live.
DL: That happens most of the time (laughing).
JazzUSA: The buzz among members of the media is that you are not nearly as proficient on record as you are live, is there an album in your discography that reaches that plateau of powerful playing?
DL: I wouldn’t say, there’s some live stuff and there’s some stuff in Europe. It’s a different thing for recording. I look at that as another laboratory. Live is one laboratory and recording is another one. I’ve learned how to record. I think pretty well. Recording is a different, it’s a real art to record. That kind of intensity can’t be captured on tape. It wasn’t captured either with Coltrane, although it’s amazingly intense, when you hear various recordings. It’s only a glimpse of what it was like. It’s a different medium. It’s a different field. You’re in there in a different way and trying to make a different kind of impression, let’s put it that way. When you’re playing live, the whole idea is to get the musicians completely engulfed and involved in it. Hopefully, the audience comes along. Whether or not they do is not really my, I don’t really care about that. My job is to get the guys into it and that’s what I do. Recording is a different thing. Off hand, there are some records, probably more in the free jazz aspect of my recording, of which there are some things. In Europe, there’s a little trio that I have and it’s on a label called Label Blue from France. It’s a French bass player and an Austrian drummer. That’s a little more in the freer vain. I don’t think a recording as something that I’ve really thought about too much.
JazzUSA: Your recording legacy is mostly devoted to the soprano saxophone, and yet you’re no slouch on tenor.
DL: Well, I’ve gotten back on it. I gave it up for fifteen years.
JazzUSA: Why put it down in the first place?
DL: I had to go through a little bit of thinking about it. I’m enjoying it. One of the reasons that I stopped it was I just felt that the Coltrane influence was so strong and I had absorbed so much of it, thankfully, that’s what I wanted, that it was impossible for me to get away from it and I didn’t want to be forever identified, not so much by outside critics or something because I don’t really care what they think, but by myself. My mind was always chasing that Trane and that’s why I went to soprano because I thought there was more room to be individual on it. I felt I had something on it, naturally. It seemed to just fall right for me. I never really practiced it the way I practiced tenor. It wasn’t my instrument of development. It was a chance to do something, I thought, if I just put my energies into one. So that happened. Then around the mid-nineties, I was getting fifty years old in ’96 and I was using that year a couple of different ways, redoing one of my books, doing a solo record, etc., and one of things I was thinking about was it’s time to get back to the roots. Face this issue that I have not solved. I had just put it on a back shelf, which was what to do about the tenor and also bring it back into the repertoire, in the sense that the power of the tenor, you can’t get it on soprano. There’s no way you can. I’ve enjoyed it, having taken it upon myself and using it in this particular group on certain kinds of tunes. I think I’ll forever be, I’ll feel that the soprano is my real true voice as far as an identity goes and as far as what I believe in the music, whatever I believe. It’s legacy will be on the soprano and the tenor will be a different thing. Also, the field is so much more crowded on tenor. There’s so many great players and there have been. On soprano, there are more and more, but it’s not quite like that.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your two latest albums on Arkadia, “John Coltrane’s Meditations” and “Elements: Water.”
DL: First of all, I have always felt that the late period of Coltrane was a neglected period, from the standpoint of listener and musicians alike. It was a little off putting, that music, when you saw it live. It definitely was not easy to listen to live, in those last two years of his life and the critics, everybody, have just related to Coltrane’s “Impressions” and “A Love Supreme” and earlier with Miles. That music was so powerful that it was almost too much. There was some faults in it, I think, organizational and so forth. There were a lot of other people playing that weren’t on that level, I felt sometimes. And there was a lot playing around because it was a discovery kind of thing, but the tribal atmosphere, the ritualistic atmosphere and spiritual thing that Trane himself was after was just so evident. On top of that, the way he played the saxophone was even further advanced than it was up to ’65. For that reason, I’ve always admired the late music, and free jazz was a part of my life. In fact, when I came into playing, I started after Coltrane died in ’67, it was really the way I played. I wanted to play free energy jazz and that was really what we did in New York in the late sixties. I had a loft and we would play five saxophones together. Eight people were playing everything free, just no talking about what to play, no time, no tune, no changes, nothing like that. It remained with me. We all got conservative. We all did our things and so forth over the years, but it was something that I felt I wanted to get back to and address the issue. Now “Meditations” itself, of all the late Coltrane records, it’s the first one of the free jazz period, ’65. It’s just a really great record. It falls together fantastically. It has wonderful melodies and very free playing. So I was always attracted to it and then in ’86, ’87 there was something in France where they invited me to do something. Would I do something Coltrane? And I decided to do that. My wife is a oboist/composer and she’s got a great ear and she took off the whole record. I have the whole music transcribed. She took off all the melodies, or what I considered to be the melodies, I’m not even sure. Then I did a little bit of work on it in the sense that I wasn’t going to just play it the way Coltrane played it, I couldn’t. Very much like I’ve handled standards over the years, I tried to put my own spin on it. For better or worse. People might feel put off by it, like for example, using guitar and synthesizer on “Meditations,” but on the other hand I think I gave it a little bit of a spin that makes it contemporary and individual. Also, I added some harmonies to the melodies, which he did not do. Those definitely were not on the record. It was an adaptation, yet in the spirit. Now, that particular recording was a live version. I didn’t know it would come out. I taped it on my own and eventually, when I got together with Arkadia, we got it out. It was during that year, ’95, I played it all over the world and using musicians in whatever city I would go to, students of mine or whomever. They always enlarged the group. One time, we did it with twenty saxophones in France on his birthday in ’97. So every five years I would do it, ’87, ’92, ’97, and ’95 because that was exactly thirty years from its original recording. That was the event that we did that became the recording. I’m happy with the results. My tenor playing wasn’t like it is now, I was just getting back into it. The sound is not great because I had to be budget conscience at that time. We only did eight tracks, but the spirit is there and I’m very proud of it in that respect. With “Water,” I had talked to Pat (Metheny) over the years and he always enjoyed me and he’s one of my fans. He’s always had very kind words to say about me. He likes my books about harmonies. He thinks it’s a milestone and so forth. We’ve always had a very respectful relationship and I’ve played a little bit with him during the eighties in various settings. So with Arkadia, I knew there would be an opportunity to do something like this and do all the elements eventually, water, fire, earth, and air. And although I’m not with the label anymore, we had a little falling out, this project had come off. I wrote very specifically for Pat, with his guitars in mind, with him in mind. Billy (Hart) and Cecil (McBee) were a team that I had had on another record I had done on Soul Note, a pretty free recording called “The Seasons,” based on summer, winter, fall, and so forth. And I liked that kind of way of trying to paint pictures, especially nature. These days, it’s kind of what I’ve been doing. It was pretty composed, tunes all based on one major melody that you hear in the beginning and I’m very happy with the results. Pat is very well known. He’s one of the most famous jazz musicians around in a certain way. For me to have him was an honor and of course a plus in a lot of ways. It was a challenge and I think, well, I know he really enjoyed it. I feel it was a pretty artistic record. It puts him in a situation that he’s never in. I want him to do things that he didn’t do on other people’s records, with Joshua Redman, or Michael Brecker, or whomever he’s played with, especially saxophonists. I thought about it and that was kind of how I painted the picture.
JazzUSA: But you were one of the first artist signed to the Arkadia label.
DL: Business is business and what happens is unfortunately, in this day and age more than ever, mom and pop operations, a one man type of show, are pretty much impossible to pull off anymore. And he, this guy who runs it, and who was producing it, doing everything, had big eyes and big ears and was very enthusiastic and things looked very, very promising, but unfortunately, he tried to do too much, so things start happening. You don’t get paid on time, and this and that and this. And with any new label, and I’ve been with a lot of new labels, because a lot of guys like me and they say, “Let’s record.” I’ve never been really signed to anybody, so I’ve been there before. It often happens that in the beginning, there’s an organizational period, there’s a little bit of a leeway for a year or two, but then if things don’t settle down, you can see the writing on the wall. Things didn’t work out. We have another record in the can that will come out next year, which is a, I’m not sure what the name will be, but probably “The Puccini Project.” What I did was I took about eleven arias from various Puccini operas and played them in various settings, with strings, with this and that. Phil Woods is on a few tracks, you know, oboe, blah-blah-blah. It’s a very beautiful record with, obviously, very beautiful melodies that I’m not responsible for, but I put them in various settings, synthesizers with different instrumentation. I changed the chords a little bit. So he has one more record that will come out. But I also have a new record coming out on Double Time within a few months of Monk tunes, with Eddie Gomez and Adam Nussbaum, Monk with a trio, no piano, no guitar. I’m back in a situation where I’ve always been, which is going from label to label and just whatever you can do here. The plight of many of us, it’s not, I do better than a lot of people. It would be nice to be signed to a company that takes care of business and that supports you and has a long range plan, which is what I thought Arkadia would, but we’re pretty much being on our own, getting our day work as we have to, which is what recording’s about.
JazzUSA: Puccini. Madama Butterfly and La Boheme with improvised changes sounds intriguing.
DL: It’s different, huh, Fred (laughing). It’s a lot of quiet stuff, obviously. You can’t do that and go too crazy.
JazzUSA: Which Puccini arias did you select?
DL: “Un bel di” (Madama Butterfly, Act II), “Nessun dorma” (Turandot, Act III) of course, “O mio babbino caro” (Gianni Schicchi), there’s a beautiful one, this is art, “Vissi D’Arte” (Tosca, Act II), with a tenor a cello. That’s a gorgeous one. Oh, it was gorgeous. It ends the record. I did one with synthesizer and Phil Woods playing clarinet as the second voice. It’s a great hodgepodge. There’s some straight-ahead jazz. There’s some nice, beautiful tunes. I used the acoustic guitar and percussion, synthesizer. It was really a production. I’m very proud of it. I haven’t listened to it in a couple of months, but I’m sure it will definitely create some interest among people because it’s an unlikely thing to be doing. And the way I handled it is pretty musical and artistic. I’m proud of it.
JazzUSA: Many artists don’t have that kind of brass.
DL: I know (laughing). I try to do things, that’s what I meant about recording earlier. I’m not oblivious to trying to sell a record. I mean, I do my best to make what I do somehow appealing to, I can’t say the casualist, I have to say the jazz listener. I don’t try to turn anybody off. That’s why I don’t play the way I play live because that is hard to take. On record, it’s even harder when you don’t have the physical presence. So taking “Beauty and the Beast,” because I like it and I could do it and I found a setting and so forth, and the same with the Puccini, I mean, it’s a long story but it came about, actually, through Miles and seeing him have the score to Tosca on the piano when I was with him. When I talked to him about it, he said I’m going to do it with Gil (Evans) someday and they never did. Staying in my mind, one day actually hearing an opera, watching something from the Met with Placido Domingo, I saw Tosca and said, “Man, those are beautiful melodies.” And I don’t know anything about opera. But there I was saying, “God, there’s some great melodies in here.” And remembering this incident from fifteen years earlier when I spoke to Miles, and it made me curious about Puccini and I went to somebody who was an expert on it and he gave me all the scores and all the records. I spent a few months listening, picking those melodies that I thought were good. Some, now I see, end up being some pretty popular tunes, “Nessun dorma” (from the opera Turandot) and things like that. But then I had done this with West Side Story in 1990 on a French label. I took it and took the score and changed it around and made it adapted to my style, so it was something I liked doing. I do like to take repertoires, to me that’s a recording that I call repertoire, meaning Coltrane, or I do a Miles record, or this Monk record. I like to do something that’s repertoire and adapt it to my own style and then the next record or two can be original music. That I think makes an interesting slate. I think it’s hard for people to get into because I change a lot and I’m not easy to categorize, which companies don’t like and which is not easy for the listener or the critics to understand. One critic will like one thing I do and the next critic will say that I don’t like what he does and then the next guy will say, “It’s great to have Dave play some real jazz.” But I have to satisfy myself.
JazzUSA: Does that type of inconsistency offend you?
DL: It’s because I’m not a big, well-known item. If Chick Corea does it or Herbie Hancock does it, it’s accepted. They have made it acceptable. In the seventies, it was just beginning to be eclectic and that was the beginning of that period when you had artists like Herbie and Chick, John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. That was something that came out of the sixties. We are products of the sixties and that was the period when you heard a lot of kinds of music in the same day. You could be listening to Bartok and then James Brown and then Coltrane. It was all part of the big mix and that was what we were exposed to. We are expressing, I am expressing my influences of music and jazz is the vehicle I use and the language I use, but that doesn’t limit me in style or in genre. I’ve done classical music and string quartets and orchestra, and then I’ll do free jazz or bebop. I try not to do too much, of course, because you can stretch yourself thin, but I’m interested in a lot of different things. I think the common thread through all this is going to be me. I play, it’s pretty much going to be the way I play no matter whether it’s a jazz quartet or a string quartet. So that can be a little bit confusing to the listener. Those that like you and then suddenly their confronted with Dave Liebman playing Monk tunes. Those who do know me, now expect that. You build your audience one by one when you’re somebody like myself. A lot of people like me. Lee Konitz has liked me. Anthony Braxton’s liked me, Paul Bley. You build your audience over twenty, thirty, forty years, who say, “I like this guy’s scope. I like what his tastes are.” Then they turn on one other person. That’s how it works. You’re never going to get much more than that really.
JazzUSA: And the Monk album on Double Time?
DL: The Monk record, we just did in January. I’ve always wanted to play Monk in a trio situation, meaning without piano or guitar. Once you put the chords in there, you are confronting Monk head on. You’ve got to be careful. It would be very dependent on the player, I mean, Chick Corea’s done it and so forth. You have to be careful. I like the openness of the Monk tunes. The harmony is rather ordinary bebop harmony, but what make Monk’s characteristic is his melodies and the rhythms of the melodies and that kind of suggests a certain way of improvising. An influence would be like a Sonny Rollins type of influence coming right out of there. It seems to me there would be a direct line, although Coltrane, of course, played with Monk. I get more of a Sonny, kind of humorous, broken, up and down, curvy way of playing. It’s not as smooth. And being able to get Gomez was a coup because he’s so amazing. It was through his technical facility that I was really able get out of the melodies, a lot of fullness. He didn’t just play a bass line. I had him play tenths, sevenths, and thirds, and fifths and things to try and fill it up and give it a twist. I didn’t change the tunes at all. I did put some different feels behind some of the tunes. I did some tunes that are not the most well known Monk tunes. It’s a nice, swinging record. We did about ten Monk tunes. Hearing me play that, I think, is interesting, especially when you have Steve Lacy, who is also a big Monk guy, and me with the soprano. I think people are going to like it. It’s appealing. Of course, Gomez and Adam do a great job.
JazzUSA: Are you shopping around for another label?
DL: I have a couple of things, people interested. I have a solo record coming out. I did this really incredible record on Enja that’s coming out towards the end of the year, beginning of next year, done in a studio in Germany with an engineer. It’s an amazing, full saxophone, sounds like orchestra. It’s an incredible thing. I have live stuff from Birdland and the Blue Note with the band that a label is interested in doing next year. There are things. I’m very active mostly in Europe. I’m associated with two groups. One is with Jon Christensen and Bobo Stenson and we’ve been doing that for about fifteen years now. We do one or two tours a year. It’s that Nordic sound. It’s a great band. Lars Danielsson is the bass player. It’s a wonderful band. It’s getting quite a reputation. Then there’s this trio that I was referring to with bassist Jean-Paul Slea. And that’s more coming out of the free thing and that’s French based. We have two records out in France. We’re doing quite well there. I do things with orchestras, with the WDR in Cologne, and various chamber groups and so forth, with music that’s written for me. Some of it is my music that has been arranged and some of it’s original music. So Europe is very active and of course with the teaching and the association that I am a head of, an international association of schools that I began ten years ago. We have thirty-five countries represented, which I’m the founder and artistic director of. I’m very connected to the European scene, much more so than the American scene.
JazzUSA: Why is that?
DL: First of all, there’s much more support in Europe from the government. It changes the nature of the music because it’s much less commercially oriented. The European musicians are definitely not tied to bebop, the tradition. It doesn’t mean anything to them. They have respect for it. Some of them do it better than others, but it’s not something that’s part of their repertoire by necessity, which here, of course, it is. So they have much more original music, much more combinations using the new, well, not new, but classical, avant-garde techniques, and of course, folk music because they have so much, the European countries are in Africa and in Asia. There’s a lot of populations that live in these countries. When you go to Berlin or Paris, you get people from all over the world. So there’s a lot more mixture going on there and in my eyes, much more risk taking and adventurous music than you would hear with the standard thing in America. America, you get pretty much up and down the line. It’s wonderful jazz playing but not that creative to my mind. Europe is a great scene. There’s a lot of great musicians there who have a particular way of playing that is unique. There are differences, even between France and Germany and Italy. I go once a month or twice a month.
JazzUSA: And David Liedman’s musical goal?
DL: I’m doing it. I have no end all. I think I’m lucky and I’m glad that I’m one of the fortunate few who can really say, outside the travails of the business, which is another thing and sometimes the difficulties of traveling, which is a necessity, but those are not so bad. I’m doing what I want, which is that when I play I give off what I believe is particular to me, a certain kind of energy, and a certain kind of freedom, spontaneity, looseness, and dedication.
For more information on David Liebman’s new album
The Elements: Water
See our review from the April 1999 JazzUSA.