Interview with Dave Liebman about Beyond the Line (OmniTone 12204)
Tafuri: So, you've been playing all these years –and, Lord knows, you've played in enough big bands, small ensembles –
Liebman: I never considered myself a big band player –
Tafuri: Well, I know, but –
Liebman: 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. I mean, there are always "counter" ways of doing things but, let's say, that the musical way is you try to sound like one –five sound like one, and that mean's the lead alto. And I will tell you that I had an experience, since we're on the big band thing. One time I played lead alto –for whatever reason or for fun or whatever –and, I'll tell you, it was a thrill. And I could see what a thrill it is, because you got it.
Liebman: And, also, if you're screaming on high and you've got the melody; everybody follows you.
Tafuri: It's like the lead trumpet.
Liebman: Yeah and, I must say, that was an experience that made me see why the lead alto or the lead trumpet is an honored species. But to be the second or first tenor –even if you're the jazz soloist –never really was my cup of tea.
Tafuri: So, why the heck do a big band right now?
Tafuri: I mean, this time you're in front of it. That's true.
Liebman: And I'm the quarterback, and I like that.
Tafuri: That's true.
Liebman: I mean, it's really just me in front of a band. That's all. And, I must say, on the other side, there's nothing like the power of fifteen horns behind you. 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. It's just an amazing feeling to be playing over that and within it and under and so forth. So, the thrill of being in the lead is just an obvious killer.
Tafuri: Well, you're a quarterback in more ways than one. You're sort of the coach, too. I mean, you're the coach out in front, but you're the quarterback, too, because you're calling the plays. Everything, except for one tune, is even your compositions. It's like homecoming week for you.
Liebman: I've been very honored that guys have arranged for me. I must say that I never, well, let's put it this way: I've entertained the thought of arranging for big band. It's one of those mountains that people climb.
Tafuri: You have?
Liebman: I've entertained it. But I'm absolutely –you know, I'm not a scared kind of person musically –but, I must say, if there's anything that intimidates me, it's the thought of writing for more than four parts. You know what I mean? Like I like four, like writing out parts for a string quartet and all that. But I can't see, with all the possibilities you have with twelve or fifteen horns up there, to me, I don't know how you'd ever make choices. And anytime I say this to someone like Kenny Wheeler (or someone like that), he says, "Oh, no, Dave. It's no more than four parts, really." I say, "Oh, yeah?!"
Liebman: So, for that reason and that I don't really want it to be less as good as it could be or as good as I hear it around, I never felt that I could or would or would want to arrange for big bands.
Tafuri: Well, that's the problem. If you took on the effort to climb the mountain and then made something that sounded like something that's already been done –
Liebman: And to go "counter" and do some completely out stuff, that's another way, of course, but I don't really want to do that.
Tafuri: That'll be the next album.
Liebman: Well... At some point.
Tafuri: That'll be the "retro," 1969 –
Liebman: The free shit. I mean, that's one way of going. But, I mean, to have guys really take your tunes –and the process is very simple: I approach them or they approach me and, as you can see, a good portion of them are educators because I do a lot of school stuff –and I'll say "Are you interested?" and they'll say "Love to," and I send them basically three cassettes worth of "heads." Heads only. And I say, "You pick the ones you're attracted to." No titles. Just put them on a separate cassette or play them for me on the phone, and I say, "Aw, okay, that's this tune or that tune; I'll send you the full version and you pick what you want." So, I leave it to them to pick, out of the "taste," the ones they're attracted to from listening to the melodies –the melodies as played on record, because almost all the tunes are recorded. And that's how it's come about that I have a variety of material recorded –actually, in this case, it spans decades.
Tafuri: That's what I was going to ask you. This album is something that kind of evolved over a long period of time, right? These arrangements have basically just "come along" like you mentioned before?
Liebman: It's the '70s, '80s, and '90s. These tunes come from the '70s, '80s, and '90s. And the tunes are from all the different bands I've had.
Tafuri: But the question was directed not just a the tunes, but the arrangements. Were these collected over a period of time?
Liebman: 30 years.
Tafuri: The arrangements themselves?
Liebman: These arrangements are all from the '90s, in this case. I have ones –and, in fact, most of the ones I do at colleges (because they're slightly easier) –are from the '80s and before. Starting in the '70s, I had people writing. I must have about 25 to 30 charts.
Liebman: Of my tunes. And then, of course, like "Sing, Sing, Sing," I have a book of tunes that I like to play that have been done, and I like to ask "Can I have that arrangement?"
Tafuri: But when you were talking about how people come to you, arrangers call you and say "I'd like to do something of yours."
Liebman: Well, for example, Ed Sarath is the head of the jazz department at the University of Michigan. I did a record with him –he's a wonderful trumpet player –and I said "Would you like to arrange something," and he said "Sure." I did an album called Memories, Dreams and Reflections. He did (played on) the whole album, this is all he picked. Mendoza was commissioned by the WDR –this is part of the WDR project in Germany (Cologne) –to do one of my tunes. "Fracas" is for the Air Force Band. They asked me to do a concert, they said "We'll take any of your tunes," I sent them the tape. Et cetera. Henrik [Frisk] is a student of mine –"Carissima." And, of course, Jim McNeely you know. And Warfield is –well, we did a whole record of stuff. "Pablo" was part of the record. So, that's how it works.
Tafuri: So, for McNeely. That "Sing, Sing, Sing." How did that come about? You were part of that "Goodman Revisited," as I recall.
Liebman: It was the last time I was in The New York Times, too, so... [Chuckles.] Uh, I got a call from him, I guess, in '95 or '96.
Tafuri: From Jim?
Liebman: From Jim, and he said "The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band is doing Benny Goodman, and they want me to arrange"... No. Jon Faddis called me, who was the head of it.
Tafuri: Right. He was the musical director.
Liebman: He said "There's two things. I want you to do 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' McNeely, for you, and I want to take a lesson," which he did. He came out here and took a lesson.
Tafuri: Faddis did this?
Liebman: And I said, "'Sing, Sing, Sing'? C'mon! What do I got to do with Benny Goodman except that we're Jewish? I played clarinet, too?"
Liebman: "I got nothing to do with Benny Goodman."
Tafuri: [Laughs more.]
Liebman: "I don't even like Benny Goodman." So, he said, "No, Jim's gonna do an arrangement for you, featuring you and your style," because Jim knew it. He's done several of my records, obviously. We've done several projects with big band, and he's done things for me before. So, that was Carnegie Hall, and I was featured for the concert for that tune.
Tafuri: How long ago was that?
Liebman: That was '96, and I had a picture –Parales (or one of those guys) reviewed and put a picture of me in the The New York Times, because it was a great arrangement, I'm playing soprano, and it polyharmonically it takes quite a chance. And it is the arrangement of Benny Goodman's thing, but it's just couched in contemporary harmony. For me it's perfect. He wrote with me in mind. Of course, I didn't go on the recording they finally made, and Dick Oatts did it, because I wasn't around. But that, I must say was the first –
Tafuri: I don't think it was the full arrangement on the recording.
Liebman: It's not? I don't know.
Tafuri: It isn't as stretched out as ours. The solos are not as extended, and there's really isn't quite as much blowing.
Liebman: And the other one by Jim, "Done with Restraint," was a WDR project.
Tafuri: So, how did it feel doing Goodman, then?
Liebman: [Chuckles.] I gotta tell you a [Wynton] Marsalis story, because it was the "battle of the bands." He was up there [with his band from Lincoln Center].
Tafuri: Oh, really? The concert was?
Liebman: Yeah. They had half the stage each [the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra]. And they played one song each. I don't remember what song they played –I forget –but they played Benny Goodman stuff. I don't even remember: "Airport," "Air Mail," "Air Something," something. "Memories of You" –I think I played that also.
Tafuri: "Air Mail Special."
Liebman: Anyway, I walked on the stage, because I was just playing these two tunes, Marsalis, who I don't really know, I walked by him and he said, "Here comes Benny." [Laughs.] And, you know, "Alright, yeah." You know. So, that was the only time I played it until we recorded it.
Liebman: You know, "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Tafuri: How did it feel, then, doing Benny Goodman, since you weren't thinking of it as –
Liebman: –at Carnegie Hall –
Tafuri: –at Carnegie Hall?
Liebman: It was wild. It was an event. And to do it like that, it was really an event. And it really features me out front, I mean, big time.
Tafuri: I mean, it's balls-out.
Liebman: Well, Mac [Jim McNeely]. I said, "Mac, whatcha gonna do?" And he says, "It's gonna be for you with Faddis."
Tafuri: Because, you know, we put out the Tentet record and, when I interviewed him, we talked about that arrangement.
Liebman: What did he say?
Liebman: Do you remember what he said about it?
Tafuri: About what?
Liebman: About the arrangement. I mean, am I telling the story right?
Tafuri: Well, it was interesting, because he was kind of impressed with the questions I asked about it, because I pretty much heard everything he was trying to put in there.
Tafuri: Which was kind of neat. What he did was, he took all those riffs that we know from the original, and he made each one into a little section of the piece. It's more than just like four bars or eight bars; each is like a whole other episode of the piece. And that whole thing with trading fours with the whole band, man, that's so out! [Laughs.]
Liebman: Especially doing it with me.
Tafuri: Well, you made 'em run.
Liebman: Well, especially because of the way and the density of the rhythms. And they copped it.
Tafuri: It's most exciting.
Liebman: And, you know, every time we play, everybody gets it. The way they copped it, you know, there should be a whole tune or a whole record like that.
Tafuri: Well, that's the thing about Jim. Even on the Tentet record he made with us, he does all these interesting things. Like, why should only one instrument play on a break? So, there's this one tune where, on every break, there are duos soloing. You know, stuff like that. You know, what I wanted to ask you, was was that a "one-taker"? I mean, you don't have to confess, but was it a complete take?
Liebman: Oh, everything's a complete take, and I believe –I mean, one or two –but you know for the session and the engineer, man, we're talking about eight, nine hours of killing work. I mean, you know, there was no time; you didn't breathe.
Tafuri: Except to play.
Liebman: I mean, because the way I work usually, but here I had to get eighteen guys working with me, because we worked on such a budget which it's "It's my money" and so we made a deal with the guy. We started at five, and we went until two.
Liebman: And we did eight tunes, seven tunes, and they're hard tunes. And the setup in the studio wasn't A+ for a big band in the studio –
Tafuri: Well, it never is –
Liebman: It never is, so, therefore, I'm pretty sure this was one take. I mean, if there were two takes, there weren't two takes of every tune. There's no way we could have gotten through it.
Liebman: I mean, no, this is not edited that way. There are fixes, as far as the balances and stuff like that and making a mistake and we'd fix that, but we didn't "put things together." We couldn't.
Tafuri: That's interesting, because that's just a thrilling take. Because, I mean –
Liebman: I know. One time through. A sprint.
Tafuri: What's the story behind "Done with Restraint," since we're talking about the McNeely arrangements –not so much the arrangement, but the tune?
Liebman: My tunes have a programmatic content. Most of my tunes have a reason behind them: a person, place, or thing or emotion. Because that's how I write. I mostly start off with an idea, then I write to that. Except "Done with Restraint" which is tongue in cheek, because it certainly is not done with restraint. [Laughs.] Because "Done with Restraint" is one of my tunes in the category –you know, I have a lot of categories of tunes –that's one of those chamber music, me-and-Beirach-type tunes. You know, 20th century "out." And when we did it for the WDR and Mac was "What tunes should I do of yours," I said, "You know, would you do one in this language, and just use the woodwinds in that kind of way?" So, that was the genesis of that tune. So, "Done with Restraint" is really because it's not done with restraint harmonically.
Tafuri: That was one of the things I could hear.
Liebman: The harmony.
Tafuri: Well, it was not done with restraint in a lot of ways.
Liebman: And the colors...
Tafuri: But what is that in the piece? Is that a synthesizer or something?
Liebman: Yes. Because I like the synthesizer. I think it's great to use. I asked for it. I love it.
Tafuri: I thought using that synthesizer might also have to do with the title, too, because even the electronics are used with restraint. [Chuckles.]
Liebman: Yeah. The main thing is colors done with that kind of harmony –that's what the piece is about. There's no real melody.
Tafuri: It fits right in.
Liebman: Yeah. It's a certain genre of writing that I've enjoyed.
Tafuri: It's great, because the beginning of it is so moody, and you don't know what's happening –
Liebman: And they played great –
Tafuri: Then, all of a sudden, out of the gate, here he comes... Speaking of tunes and tones and colors ... and timbres ... I love "Hiroshima [Memorial]." I think that was just spectacular.
Liebman: I gotta play you the original before you go, because I played all the parts in the original.
Tafuri: What do you mean? On the original recording?
Liebman: I made a solo record in the '80s, because I went to the Hiroshima Memorial in the early '80s and stood there, and it was a real vibe, man. What a vibe! I mean, because, that museum is next to that one building that's still standing that's got green all over it. I mean, this was ten o'clock in the morning. What a vibe. Just think about what happened there. You know, I felt like, 'I just gotta write something about this.' When I wrote the tune in the '80s, the whole disarmament race was pretty tense with Reagan –the "Star Wars" race, arms stuff –and you'll hear me say on the original, "Plea for disarmament and peace," and this is was I say on the beginning of the piece. You hear the bombs. You hear the airplane coming.
Tafuri: It's sounds pr–
Liebman: It's programmatic. Yeah. It's the date. I just did one for 9/11. We just did it –
Tafuri: I mean, it has special –
Liebman: It's the date.
Tafuri: It has a lot more significance, almost now, especially [after 9/11] –
Liebman: Yes. It's the tragedy. The flute opens with the Japanese "vibe"; it's got that kind of shakuhachi vibe. It's the whole thing of those people just sitting there and like 'What's going on?' I mean, you know, it's something else. Think about it.
Tafuri: I have.
Liebman: I mean, a hundred thousand go down like that. That's a lot. That's heavy. And never again. You know, that and the other one, and that's it. So far, never again.
Tafuri: Yeah. Yeah.
Liebman: And, I mean, the arrangement: he took what I played and just orchestrated it, which a lot of these [arrangements] are. A lot of these are not new material. In other words, an arranger has several ways to go. They can take what you write and orchestrate it, and that's orchestration, which is basically what Mac did on "Done with Restraint," or they can add material. And, in this case, it's actually all my material. Not just this song; "Pablo's Story"...
Liebman: They take what I wrote.
Tafuri: It's an extended composition.
Liebman: Yeah, but a couple different flavors. I said to them, "You can do whatever you want; you can add," and some do add little things. Arrangers, by in large, what I've found, when they take other's material, they're conservative. Whether it's out of respect or out of craftsmanship, they feel like they want to play it to the letter, to the law. In other words, "This is Lieb's tune." And then I send them the version of its played. They don't just see a lead sheet, they hear the way I recorded it. Sometimes I'm not sure that that's such a good idea, because I encourage them to be themselves and put themselves in it and give me some of their juice. You know what I mean?
Tafuri: Right, right.
Liebman: But most of these cats who do this are very literal: they take what's on the paper and what you played –and, of course, a lot of them take parts of my solo. That's a big thing: they take what I played and orchestrate that. So, in a way I can say these are arrangements, semi-arrangements/orchestrations of what I play ... or of what my groups played on other recordings.
Tafuri: The effect is brilliant. I think it's really wonderful.
Liebman: It's nice to have so many voices. It's so nice.
Tafuri: Of course, getting back to what you were saying, some guys really aren't that conservative all the time. McNeely told me about all the hate mail Carnegie Hall got, that the Band got, after that arrangement [of "Sing, Sing, Sing"] came out. [Laughs.] It's good. You gotta stir it up every once in a while.
Liebman: And the other thing about this that dawned on me when we did the grant was, because it's six different arrangers, that's really unusual. You don't get that. You get Nelson Riddle, and he's doing Nelson Riddle. I mean, he may have Cole Porter tunes and do Gershwin tunes, but this is a really unusual thing.
Tafuri: Well, that adds other colors and shapes, a whole other –
Liebman: It's flavor. And that is really up my line, because I like eclectic shit. I like different shit. In fact, it's a strength, I think, that you have the variety of six different arrangers rather than one.
Tafuri: There's variety, but the line that runs through all of it is that –
Liebman: It's me –
Tafuri: You're playing on it, and they're your tunes.
Liebman: That's what ties it together.
Tafuri: It's diverse but it doesn't feel "eclectic."
Liebman: That's what I've been trying to do for 30 years: keep it varied, but with me as the common denominator. That's the point. And the soprano. You notice I didn't use any tenor.
Tafuri: Yeah, I thought that was interesting.
Liebman: On purpose, to keep the sound of the soprano over the band. It's very unusual. I can't think of anyone else who's done it ... or made a whole record of it. I'm sure it's been –I'm sure someone's done it. I mean, a big band with a soprano lead and only soprano. Instead of tenor.
Tafuri: I think that gets back to that lead alto comment you made earlier.
Liebman: Maybe so.
Tafuri: You don't have to fight so much. You're already there.
Liebman: I'm already in the high register.
Tafuri: We can hear you. [Laughs.]
Liebman: I learned that with Miles because, with that rock and roll shit, I had to use soprano. I couldn't use a tenor ... too much, you know. You couldn't hear it. Octave makes a difference in life.
Tafuri: Howya gonna be heard? That's for sure. Speaking of "out" stuff, where did "Fracas" come from?
Liebman: The title comes from Billy Hart.
Liebman: Although it's a word, right? It is a word?
Tafuri: Yeah, yeah. It's a word.
Liebman: I don't know if I didn't know it was a word or something. You know, he was with me for ten years with Quest and, I don't know, he came up with the word "fracas" –"This is a fracas, man!" I don't know. I liked the word. And the genesis of the tune is from a Billy Cobham tune (or something) that I heard.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Liebman: Where bass line and drums answer the horns ... or guitar. I don't know. It came from a tune. And it was one of the very first tunes of mine with the (at that time) new band with [Vic] Juris and [Phil] Markowitz, and I wanted this kind of tune to be in that band. The original recording of this is almost exactly like what you hear [on this record] ... except, of course, for the free playing with a lot of horns going crazy. But we free-played, the five of us. It's a commotion, and it's set in a funk-fusion thing with 16th-note lines that are chromatic. It's a pretty difficult tune to play, actually. It's a challenge.
Tafuri: Well, there's definitely a lot going on in there.
Liebman: Well, "let the horns go crazy" is what it's about ... to make a fracas. It's a commotion. In fact, it means commotion, right?
Tafuri: It certainly is.
Tafuri: Well, that's interesting, because we talk about titles of albums a lot. A the title evolved a bit as we are preparing the album, but the title of one of the tunes ended up becoming the title of the album. Why, of all the tunes on the record, did you pick, did you feel like "Beyond the Line" was the title tune?
Liebman: Although I first considered "Sing, Sing, Sing" for the obviously great image of "Sing, Sing, Sing" (it's a great image)...
Tafuri: And it's identified by, ah hum, Benny Goodman...
Liebman: And it's a little too obvious, is what it came down to. And "Beyond the Line" is not the title because the tune is representative of anything. In fact, it is the most melodious tune and the most "inside" tune, from a musical standpoint, on the record. It's probably the best composition; it's a really nice tune. I have words to it. I recorded it with J D Walter. I just recorded that tune, and he wrote words to it. But I think Pat Dorian –I didn't think of it in the way he did in his little essay that he wrote –that, from his standpoint, I've always been going beyond the line musically and that that's part of my persona, part of my whatever –reputation, image, whatever you wanna call it –and I like that. [Laughs.] 'Cause that's exactly what I'm like.
Tafuri: Where did the title come from originally?
Liebman: It comes from a terrible incident that was a just terribly unspeakable scene that has been and just finally has been abated between me an another individual who really went beyond the line in conduct. A personal vendetta, I mean, like FBI-type stuff. Like an FBI guy sitting here. You know, threats. I got on his bad list –he's a nut –and it went on until recently. So, beyond the line was that –I can take a lot, and I don't really let much bother me, because I don't really care what most people think, you know, but –this cat was threatening-my-family-type shit, like that.
Tafuri: So, out of an ugly incident like that, how did you –
Liebman: –write such a sweet tune? [Laughs heartily.]
Tafuri: What's that all about?
Liebman: Because, Frank –
Tafuri: I mean, not everything has to be programmatic. I'm not saying that. But just because it worked out this way, it's interesting.
Liebman: It's about how I view –and I'm certainly getting to that point now –humanity. In essence, meanness, vendettas, vengeance –all the things that people exhibit, we all exhibit –that can go beyond the line and become treacherous and terroristic are really not what the person's about. Look, I'm not going Jesus Christ here, but I have to think that people are really, in the end, cool. There are some mean bugs out there that are born on the wrong side –and it's a genetic thing probably –even that is an accident. I just don't believe that somebody really means to be like that.
Tafuri: People are basically good.
Liebman: Exactly. So that in the enormous anxiety and problems that this particular individual made me go through in the last ten, fifteen years or so, in the end, it's because I feel sorry for the guy. And that's not that the guy has a sweet nature just because the tune's sweet, but there's that I feel a charitableness, a tenderness –although I'm pissed off at the motherfucker –that I exhibited through that melody. That's the truth. It's really a very lyrical melody. It's one of my more lyrical ones.
Tafuri: I know. That's why I'm so surprised to hear you tell this story.
Liebman: I know. But that's how it came out.
Tafuri: It's very yin-yang in a way.
Liebman: Yeah! Which is how everything is to me now ... more and more. I can see that to everything, there's two sides to a coin, everything is half empty-half full. I mean, I just can't see anything any other way anymore. I mean, it's getting weird. Like if you do something bad, I go "Yeah, but..." If you do something good, I go "Yeah, but..."
Liebman: I'm like "out," I'm getting "out." I'm having trouble having discussions with my wife. I mean, I'm don't think I'm becoming a Zen master, but it's getting out.
Tafuri: So, for as radical as you guys were and as organic as you guys were in the late '60s and early '70s, now it's really taken root.
Liebman: It's come full circle. It's getting "outter" as I'm getting older. I'm starting to see the shadows on the wall.
Tafuri: Well, you've internalized it now. Instead of an intellectual endeavor, now it's been internalized.
Liebman: I'm starting to feel that way. The record Time Immemorial that I made in '96 when I was 50, that also celebrates that. It's about the picture of that: it's always been the same, it's always gonna be the same, there's always good and band, there's always this and that... That's just the way it is. You're not changing nothin'. (It's the way it is.) So, this cat, he's just an example of that. This cat went over the line.
Tafuri: Hmm. Well, that's funny because, not knowing the story and having listened to the record quite a bit, I tended to agree with the liner notes, that that's what it was: pushing the line. I still couldn't see exactly where it was in that tune; maybe I was taking a too literal an approach.
Liebman: Well, it's like you said: not all tunes are programmatic ... in the common sense of the word. But it's sarcastic or paradoxical, because that's part of our job: to be paradoxical.
Tafuri: Of course.
Liebman: To be (like) the opposite. Not because opposite is just good, but because "you made your point, so go the other way." I mean, I learned that, in a way, from Miles. Miles was a great example as a musician of artistic contrariness –not for the sake of it, which a lot of guys are, but contrariness –because if you played fast, then something should go slow. If you played loud, that you should go soft. He was one of the greatest (I mean, I'm being a bit black and white about it) examples, and to be with him on stage and watch that really was my view at seeing how you work at a life in music, of how you got a balance. Your job is balance. That's your job. So, sometimes if it's so obviously "this way, left" then, you know what, you don't have to go more left than left. It's already left; let's go over to the right.
Tafuri: I have a friend of mine, who's about 30 years old than I am, who told me that, when we went to hear Miles who was touring with Sonny Stitt, Stitt would be up there, and Stitt would play (like) 9,000 notes. And they were great notes.
Tafuri: And people were going nuts in the audience. And Miles would play (like) one note –
Liebman: Boom –
Tafuri: And people went nuts. [Laughs.]
Liebman: That's what he told me. I said to him –and this is a great story, because this is exactly it... One night, after playing all that crazy rock and roll shit with guitars and everybody's going nuts, I said to Miles, "Why you got a damned saxophone [in the band]? You don't need me or anybody. You know, you've got the guitars, the synth..." I mean, this is '73, 'cause you could get a synth and fuggeddaboutit!
Tafuri: So you could go nuts?
Liebman: He said, "People like to see you move your fingers."
Tafuri: [Laughing hilariously.] There's a showman.
Liebman: He says, "You play fast, and I play slow."
Tafuri: There's the showman.
Liebman: He said, "I wish I could play that fast." I said, "I wish I could play like you. I wish I could take my time." He said, "That's why I have you here." And I never thought about it. 'Trane, Stitt, Wayne, Sonny Rollins –you name it. There was no saxophone player with Miles that played like Paul Desmond, it was all Miles. It was a whole opposite.
Liebman: And Bird was the original, and that's where he got it from.
Liebman: 'Cause he stood up at eighteen, and Bird said, "That's it; that's my model. That's my model."
Tafuri: I was just telling someone this story the other day. We were listening to some of the Dial –not the Dial –the Savoy recordings and there's one –and I think it's Miles' tune, like [scats the head] –where Dizzy, who was actually the pianist on the date, plays the head and the tail and Sadiq Hakim plays the piano, and then they switch places. Miles blows the solo on this thing, and Dizzy's back on piano. It's really an out thing. They were all in the studio together. And it's because Miles couldn't play his own [musical] head and get it right, but he played the solo on it. It's really pretty funny. It was really hip.
Liebman: Opposites, man. Tension and release, that's the story.
Tafuri: Yin-yang. Evil guy coming after you, write a pretty tune.
Liebman: Go the other way.
Tafuri: The balance of things. Speaking of yin-yang and contrasts, there's "Pablo's Story," which is another pretty tune, but it gets pretty intense.
Liebman: That's Bill. He really added a lot to it. That's one of those places where Bill Warfield added a lot of stuff. The tune is very simple; the tune's a sixteen-bar tune, you hear it right away, and not much else. So, it's on my first record, and I've played it with every band. It's probably the tune that people know me the most with. Pablo Picasso. He's the great artist. It's Spanish, it's a dedication, it's the vibe. It's epic. It's kind of epic, and Bill really got the flavor.
Tafuri: It really is epic.
Liebman: It's Spanish. It's Pablo Picasso. What an epic life in the 20th century! And the artist he was and the things he dealt with, the movements –the "epicness" of him as a painter.
Tafuri: And the contrasts. It was really interesting, four or five years ago, when they had the portraits of his wives in New York City.
Liebman: Yeah. Oh, yeah. He was like Miles.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Yeah? In what way?
Liebman: He was tough ... first of all. He was a "roughie," and then he painted some beautiful –you know, he was that kind of guy.
Tafuri: So, have you been particularly attracted to his work?
Liebman: Yes, yes. And especially when the wrote the tune, which was '72 or '73. He was the epitome of what I think I'd like to be. I look to him as an inspiration for being an artist. His variety –it's what we just talked about –variety and the sameness within the variety. And the fact that you're attracted to different worlds –different kinds of music –"Pablo's Story" –different kinds of painting –and the ability to be yourself in different kinds of ways. I think that's the ultimate: to your own self be true.
Tafuri: You can still always tell it's Picasso.
Liebman: Yes! You've still got your voice, but your voice is heard with a different "recipe." I love that. I think that's the way to go. That was Miles and that was Picasso, and not many people in art can do that. I mean, there are some in jazz that can do that –some lesser than others –but, for the most part, the "classical" performers, the one who refines, refines, refines, and gets the nut down to the seed, evermore going more inside –the Lacys of the world –although he's very eclectic –but the guys that stay with one track and just get better and better at it, that is a classical view of things. And I am attracted to (call it whatever) the "romantic" view or the "expressionist" or whatever –"open." "Let's try this, let's try that" within some kind of range, I mean, let's not go crazy. And, within that, you're yourself. And you see the commonness because it's your sound. In my case, it's the sound of the horn and the way I play, no matter whether it's with a string quartet or with a big band.
Tafuri: So, it's not just a matter (if you'll excuse me for going here for a second) of going beyond the line, but it's also a matter of redefining or moving the line.
Liebman: Exactly, because you've also got to be careful about trying too much and of not being a dilettante. You know, I just was in Brazil; we recorded a Jobim record. Of course, the interviews were about how I did it. The record a Jobim record, but there's not one bossa nova on the damned record. I did it straight-ahead; I did it like bebop. And I said to these guys, through a Portuguese interpreter, I'm not about to start thinking that I can do this [type of music]. To me, this is a world down here. I love it. I'm influenced by it but, for me to take those tunes and try to play 'em like that, it's absurd. So, there's a line that you don't cross, and I learned that when I was a young musician. I tried too many things, and I was very adventurous in that sense, and it made me what I am now. While you're young, you do that, you're supposed to do that, but as you get mature after twenty, certainly 30, years of being on the scene, playing and thinking about it, which I do, you get to a point where you see where your universe is, and you pare it down to those elements that are of interest to you and that you are good at, too. That's the other thing: you gotta go to the ones you're good at, and you stay there probably until the end –not barring any unusual happening or some new thing coming on. But you pare it down to its basic elements, and you stay within that. And, for me, Picasso was an expression of that ... as was Miles.
Tafuri: Just, on account of your mentioning it, on that Brazilian thing for a minute... We've heard quite a bit of Brazilian musical influence on your music.
Liebman: Well, Latin. You know, Latin. To me, it's all Latin stuff once you get past Mexico [laughs], beyond the Rio Grande. Because, you know, it's like a world; it's like saying "jazz" and saying there's swing and bebop and modal. I mean, these are different worlds. Free jazz. I mean, these are different worlds. 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. Give 'em a shot. Check 'em out. That's what I've tried to do, and I loved Picasso because he did that. He came at a great time in history, too. It was great. It was time for that.
Tafuri: As you get to know his work a little bit, you see that it isn't standing unto itself. It came out of the tradition. And, you know, that's something that I've faced so much. Not only with the music that we're producing right now, but back when I was with Black Saint/Soul Note and. In trying to represent this music, lots of people use the term –and here's that line again –"avant garde" (in the front line) as sort of a dismissive term, not using it in the true sense the term was originally intended. That take "avant garde" as "free" and "out"??
Liebman: ?? "without"??
Tafuri: Right. Exactly. Not related to anything or any of the tradition that came before it ... and with no future, kind of standing unto its own. And with Picasso's work –especially if you get to know it and you look back a little bit, you can see where it came from.
Liebman: The great story that I tell of Picasso, which is this story, is when they had a retrospective in 1980-81 at the Museum of Modern Art and how you were led through these three floors from 1890 right up until the end. And then, on the last floor, there's this anteroom and, in that room, were his versions of –The Night Watch, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, The Blue Boy –"the classics" that anyone in the art world knows. There was a picture of the original, then his version of it that he did when he was in the womb, probably. You know, he did it when he was one year old. And the shit is perfect. It's not a version of them; it's a copy. It's him getting his chops together. It's transcribing Coltrane. Not getting close to Coltrane; it's making sure you know the notes, and it means that you took care of business. And that's what we love about him. So, you look for a cat who knows how to take care of business, but then goes beyond that in his own way. And the Avant Garde has always been suspect as a place where people, who did not take care of business, laid down. And that's what you're talking about and that, of course, is a one-by-one discussion because there were some who did and some who didn't!
Tafuri: Sure, sure, sure.
Liebman: And only we know. The musicians are the only ones who know.
Tafuri: But that's interesting to me, Dave. You just said to me, a little while ago, that when you were playing back in the '60s –and maybe you were just being a little –
Liebman: –that we didn't know what we were doing.
Tafuri: Well, but you were saying that chord changes –
Liebman: We didn't know what we were doing. We didn't know. We had no idea of what we were doing. It was pure emotion and fingers; that's what it was. And, because of that, it had to be left to learn the music ... maybe to be gotten up again, I don't know. But that was a way of playing that was based on just the feeling of the day and the period and what was happening in our time and in that time in New York and in our lack of knowing much better. As soon as someone said, "Uh, you know 'Nefertiti'?" and I said, "No." "Do you know the changes to, like, buh-bu-bum bu-bu-bum," I said, "No, I really don't," and they looked at me askance. And, you know what? I saw that I didn't know. And then, of course, since then, I've been learning music. Because that was a stage that got me into playing. It was cultural, it was sociological, it was the way we were, it was the times. But we didn't really didn't know what the hell we were –at least, I didn't know what I was –doing. I can't talk for and I'm not talking about anybody else. I knew that I was doing something, but I didn't know.
Tafuri: But it felt right.
Liebman: Yeah, it felt great at that time –and that's what those tapes are downstairs –but we didn't know what we were doing. I mean, I didn't know anything. I didn't know my stuff, 'cause I didn't go to school, so I didn't know anything. And so, I had to go out and learn it. I though you came into Coltrane at Ascension, that that's what it was about.
Tafuri: I gotcha.
Liebman: Yeah, that you came into Coltrane at Meditations, but forget about Giant Steps and forget about blues with Miles –you know, the discipline that was within there. And then the same with Picasso or Miles. In other words, I think that the discipline validates the "avantgardness." But it's the discipline. It's the discipline is taking care of business, being able to (up to a certain level) repeat the past, up to a certain criterion. You don't spend your life there.
Tafuri: Right. You have to acknowledge it.
Liebman: Yeah, it should be in your playing. And, if I'm in the studio with another guy, if I'm in the studio with a Michael Brecker or a Joe Lovano or cats like that (you know, cats who can play, who know everything) and we listen to a cat play, we can know in three notes. I mean, we can all tell what he did or what he didn't do ... from a student to a guy who's maybe on the top of the Hit Parade right now. We know, because we can hear what it is to have that in your playing and have it be absorbed to a point where you don't even know it's in your playing, because that's schooled musicians.
Tafuri: That's like I was telling you about, about they quote they used when they ran that article on OmniTone and me in the German magazine Jazzthing: "I'm not interested in hearing some kid trying to sound like Hank Mobley; if I want to hear Hank Mobley, I get out a Hank Mobley record."
Liebman: But I do want to hear that the kid can play like Hank Mobley when he starts out.
Tafuri: But then I don't want to hear about him getting a major label contract because of that.
Liebman: No, no, but I want to hear, in his playing, that he knows who Hank Mobley was, and you can tell that in three notes ... more or less. I mean, I'm generalizing, but...
Liebman: You can tell that, because it's time, it's rhythm. You can tell from the rhythm. If he can play good time, you can tell it. Even if you don't play time. And harmony. As soon as he plays one thing that's a melody, you say "That's either and accident or, you know what, there was some structure there." But that's really the two things that let you know. Besides, on saxophone, he's either got a sound or he doesn't. That's it. That's the judgment. It's very simple.
Tafuri: One tune, we didn't talk about. And I like the play on words with it, the double entendre: "Carissima."
Liebman: I just like to call her that, I don't know. I saw it in Italy once. What does it mean: "carissima"?
Liebman: "Dearest," yeah. It's a great sound. And she's Italian.
Tafuri: And with the double meaning, È meglio cosí [it's better this way].
Liebman: È meglio cosí. And my wife [Caris] is half Italian, and it's a tune that I wrote for her. And this is my student's arrangement of it, and he did add some things to it. He made a beautiful, beautiful arrangement. The thing about this is that, emotionally, I think it's a beautiful tune.
Tafuri: Yeah, it's beautiful.
Liebman: Like people say, cats, you know, say, "Boy, your wife must really be a ballbuster" [laughs heartily], because –and she's not like that –it's not a literal translation of my wife –but I think there's a beauty in that tune. And also, harmonically, it comes from my beginning forays into chromaticism; it's one of my early tunes. I think it kind of strikes that balance between atonality and tonality; it's kind of "in" and it's kind of "out." The rhythm is slow eighth?notes, so it's all about the way the melody falls against the chords. I use this tune as one of my big teaching tunes. It's one of my examples of writing on the border of tonality and atonality.
Tafuri: Well, it's effective because, in some ways, it's simple but, on the other hand, there's a lot of "stuff" going on. So, it's just –
Liebman: –there you go!
Tafuri: Yeah, alright, it's Caris. And then that's also for those guys that play three notes: if they play 'em the right way, you hear it and the rest doesn't mean much.
Liebman: [Laughing] Yeah, that's good. That is the feeling of that tune.
Tafuri: I've never heard your original recording of this, but did it have that sort of "dream sequence" in it?
Liebman: Yeah, with Quest.
Tafuri: You know, that [sings the beginning of the arrangement] "duh-duh-duh-duh dee-dee-duh-duh duh-duh-duh-duh dee-dee-duh-duh"...
Liebman: No, that was one of our big "synth" [synthesizer] tunes of the set, "Carissima." We did it every night.
Tafuri: You go into the beginning –
Liebman: It's the vibe. It's kind of like misterioso and then, you know, like the rhythm, the slow eighth-note –what I call the "open eighth-note" rhythm –is like "kin chi-king." It's not "kinke-tinke-ting." So that with the thing of the spacing between these, you can do a lot of things metrically, and that allows the rhythm section to go a lot of different ways. "Open eight note," that's ECM: open eight note.
Tafuri: I've never heard that term before. It's like a rubato sort of thing?
Liebman: It's in time. It's not jazz time, that "boom boom-da-boom" jazz time.
Tafuri: You mean, it's beat to beat? That the space between them can vary?
Liebman: It's in time; it's in steady meter. It's almost a dance rhythm, because "kuh-choonk-ah choonk-ah choonk-ah choonk-ah" means you go "choonk- chook-" and, in between, you can do what you want.
Tafuri: I gotcha.
Liebman: But it had that dance eighth-note –not jazz, but it comes out of a fusion kind of thing.
Tafuri: It's implied, kind of. It's a ghost rhythm, like a ghost note.
Liebman: Yes, very good. Maybe I should call it that.
Liebman: It's true. It's hard to explain.
Tafuri: I get it now.
Liebman: That's what it really is to me. Because "closed" is like [starts singing a fast, hard swing rhythm] and that really like "layin' down the funk" and that's really dance rhythm. If you want people to know what it is, then you play that.
Tafuri: But this is implied.
Liebman: It's implied, and it really is the Rhythm of Our Day, because it's what the young musicians heard as their bebop. Like we heard Coltrane and cats from the '60s heard Bird and Elvin, this thing is really the rhythm of the '70s. And now it's implied. You get any drummer in the world and say "Open 8ths" and they say, "Cool." It's in his body; it's in his ear.