Liner notes for David Liebman Big Band: Beyond the Line (OmniTone 12204)
For more than 30 years, David Liebman has stood at the leading edge of creative music. He has worked with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Eddie Gomez, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, and many others. He is a Grammy nominee with over 50 recordings as a leader and over 200 recorded original compositions, ranging from orchestral works to string/wind/sax quartets to re-workings of Puccini and Bernstein to world music. He was a "jazz educator" before the term was generally used and still devotes a large chunk of his time to conducting clinics, developing pedagogical texts, and working with other educators. His musical career defines the avant garde — not in the oft-used dismissive, "doesn't-reflect-the-tradition, ain't-going-nowhere, just-blowin' crazy out stuff" sense — but as originally intended: he leads the advance of music.
Yet for all his credits and accomplishments, this is the first time Dave is fronting his own big band. "I never considered myself a big band player," he explains. "I hated it, actually. I never liked being part of a section. It's just you have to phrase like the lead alto player to make it right." But fronting a big band is another thing. "There's nothing like the power of fifteen horns behind you," bubbles Lieb. "It's unbelievable. It's the football team. It must be what the quarterback feels like when he's got those guys in front of him charging away."
Dave relied on the help of long-time aide de camp Gunnar Mossblad — saxophonist, composer, and educator — without whom Dave says this debut project could not have happened. They employed a "band within a band" concept using members of Liebman's regular rhythm section, and augmented by an outstanding cross-stylistic collective of top-flight East Coast performers and improvisers familiar with Liebman's style and musical language. They selected an equally diverse array of Liebman compositions that span his 30+ year career.
Dave wrote "Hiroshima Memorial" after being deeply moved on his first visit to the monument. "When I wrote the tune in the 80s, the whole disarmament race was pretty tense with Reagan," notes Dave. After the initial shakuhachi-like wood flute solo that opens the piece, "You hear the bombs. You hear the airplane coming." Ed Sarath's programmatic arrangement stays true to its first recording where Lieb played all the parts.
Perhaps the most beautiful, melodious piece on the recording, "Beyond the Line" sprang out of a new view of humanity garnered at the resolution of terrible, on-going incidents between Dave and another individual who really went beyond the line in conduct. The tune, arranged by Vince Mendoza, exhibits "a charitableness, a tenderness" with the revelation that, despite all the bad things Dave experienced, "I just don't believe that somebody really means to be like that."
Arranger and composer Jim McNeely arranged "Sing, Sing, Sing," the only non-Liebman composition on the album, for a 1996 Carnegie Hall Jazz Band concert entitled "Goodman Revisited." Though his concert performance garnered a photo in The New York Times, Lieb was unable to make the CHJB recording date that landed McNeely his first Grammy nomination. In the audaciously clever arrangement, exciting episodes echo famous riffs in the original Goodman band arrangement, and you can certainly hear Dave's soprano setting the pace trading fours, twos, and ones with the whole band!
McNeely also arranged "Done with Restraint" — done with anything but restraint — for a project the two did with the West German Radio Orchestra. Adds Lieb, referencing long-time colleague pianist Richie Beirach, "That's one of those chamber music, me-and-Beirach-type tunes. You know, 20th century ‘out.'"
"Carissima," dedicated to Dave's wife Caris and arranged by his student Henrik Frisk, comes from some of Lieb's early forays into chromaticism. "It kind of strikes that balance between atonality and tonality," explains Dave, "sort of between beauty and brains." Though he didn't intend the piece to be a literal musical portrait, he admits that musicians who have tackled the challenging-yet-deceptively-simple tune in the past have quipped, "Boy, your wife must really be a ballbuster."
Arranger Alan Baylock set "Fracas" for Lieb with the Air Force Band. The title came from drummer Billy Hart, a ten-year member of Lieb's band, who, after one performance, exclaimed "It's a fracas, man!" Dave describes the sound as "a funk-fusion thing with 16th-note lines that are chromatic." Baylock's arrangement is true to the original except, as Dave notes, "for the free playing with a lot of horns going crazy."
The album ends most appropriately with "Pablo's Story," dedicated to an epic man, Pablo Picasso, and outfitted with a fittingly epic arrangement by Bill Warfield. For Dave, Picasso epitomizes the true artist and the true avant garde. He displayed discipline and respect, developing his skills by learning from the masters, then stretching out and finding his own voice. He explored different worlds while staying careful to acknowledge history and tradition. Adds Dave, "That was Miles and that was Picasso, and not many people in art can do that."
"You gotta watch your step and you gotta be adventurous, but you gotta be respectful and diligent. On the other hand, you gotta not be afraid to go beyond the line, to go to do things that might not naturally look like they're suitable for your style," concludes Dave. "That's what I've tried to do, and I loved Picasso because he did that."