David LiebmanInterview with Dave Liebman on the release of Blues All Ways (OmniTone 12208)
by executive Frank Tafuri

Tafuri: Dave, how did you come up with the idea of Blues All Ways?

Liebman: I've always liked the idea of "projects" or theme-oriented recordings.  Usually, you get the inspiration from the history or something in the repertoire and, in this case, it's the great Coltrane Plays the Blues record should be "required listening" for everybody.  I've always had the idea that I would like to do something along those lines — in the modern context, obviously — and that's really where the inspiration came from.  It's been on my list for probably the last twenty years.

Tafuri: So, this is something you've been thinking about for a long time.

Liebman: Definitely, because I think the blues is one of the essential studies that a jazz musician needs to do.  It's been traditionally that way and, even in this day and age when the music is so much more sophisticated in a lot of ways, there's still that basic feeling and basic form that you get through playing the blues.  I mean, I'm not gonna call myself "a blues player."  I mean, I certainly wouldn't say that I have a lot of experience playing in blues bands or anything like that, but I did put enough time into it, and it's part of your repertoire that you definitely will refer to and play a lot of.  It's something I wanted to do from the stand point of "covering" it and from an aesthetic standpoint — both having to do and wanting to do it, let's say.

Tafuri: Well, you said the blues is "required reading" for players.  How about it being "required listening" for listeners?

Liebman: Absolutely.  I mean, I think the first thing I ever played that I would call "improvisation" — and I think I wouldn't be alone in this — was based on the "blues scale" that we know, that kind of sound that you play at the piano and fool around with.  It's probably the first thing that I ever "fooled around with" and, in my case, the first real music that I got into was '50s rock and roll.  You know, "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" and a lot of tunes like "Rock around the Clock" are blues or blues-oriented things.  In a lot of ways, I didn't even know I was listening to the blues when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, but I was really into rock 'n' roll.

Tafuri: You were just "listening to music," at that point.

Liebman: Yeah, pop music.  I used to listen to Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom," listing my own ‘top 25 of the week' while collecting 45 singles.  That was really where I first heard music so, in some ways, making this blues record is full circle for me.

Tafuri: Muddy Waters is attributed as saying, "The blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll."

Liebman: That's right.

Tafuri: So, blues is what you were first "into." I think what's beautiful about this recording is that people are going to hear it, and some people who might not even know what the title of the CD is are going to listen to it and say "Wow this is a good record"  and feel an affinity to it and may not even know why.  And it's because the basis of the blues, that's been so essential to "pop" music, is the basis for these tunes.

Liebman: And much like Coltrane did and even Miles did in Kind of Blue — I mean, Kind of Blue only has one legitimate blues on it, "Freddie Freeloader" — is to get the feeling.  Whether you're playing a traditional twelve-bar blues is beside the point.  That's why Blues All Ways has the double meaning of "in all ways" and that the blues form is always there for us to refer to. 

Tafuri: Well, I mean, there were bands like the Basie Band that made their living basically playing the "I Got Rhythm" changes and the blues.  So, anyway...  There's quite a variety of music on the CD, but I think one of the tunes that really going to get people is "Elvis the Pelvis."

Liebman: There we go, back to what I said earlier.  I mean, I loved Elvis.  He was my first musical hero, so I wanted to celebrate his place in my background.  I just loved his music, I just enjoyed it.  This was exactly about Elvis doing his thing: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel."  I was ten years old in 1956, and this was what I loved.  That's also another tune that's not legitimately blues, but it's "blues-like" in that it has that feeling and it's due to the fact that I've had this quartet that I've had together for fifteen years with Vic Juris with the guitar, the prime blues instrument of all time.  And that you'll really hear, of course, on "Elvis the Pelvis."

Tafuri: I think that one of the cool things about it is that it's in a different meter, one that's not heard too often.

Liebman: And it might be like you said, ‘Not really being understood as much as felt.'  (Chuckles.)  They listen and they might be saying, "Hmm, it's swinging, but it's a little different.  What's going on?"
(Both laugh.)

Liebman: Then another person will say, "It's odd; it has that shuffle feel like the old fifties rock and roll, but it's not quite the same."   That's part of the deal.

Tafuri: I wanna see them when they try to tap their feet to it.

Liebman: Yeah, they'll come out right every four bars!  (Laughs.)

Tafuri: Another tune you have on the record that's "real" jazz but that has a different feel is "Down Time."

Liebman: "Down Time" was inspired by a Duke Ellington ten-bar blues.  I can't tell you where I heard it or on what, but I'm pretty sure that what I'm referring to is right.  You know, in the blues in the twelve-bar form, you have those last two bars that are called the "turnaround"; it's the cadence that prepares you for the top of the form.  In a certain way, it's not necessary, and that's exactly what a ten-bar blues is.  You don't have to turn around; you just go right back to the top.  Also, another thing...  That's called "blues with a bridge" — Trane did that on "Locomotion" on the Blue Trane record, where you put a kind of Rhythm Changes interlude in-between, so you have a different kind of format.  What you're actually doing is celebrating the two most common forms in jazz, as you just mentioned — the blues and Rhythm Changes.  When I would go to clubs in the '60s, when you listened to Sonny Stitt or Horace or Monk or whomever, you certainly were going to here one blues (if not more) in a set and probably Rhythm Changes; that was kind of like the standard.  So, that's "Down Time," minus the two bars from the blues.

Tafuri: Why did you title one tune "Blues Mirage?"

Music from the BLUES ALL WAYS sessionLiebman: Because in it, we are moving around the keys with the blues scale, but not in any particular order.  I just cue the key, and we have twelve little melodies.  The idea was not to do all twelve keys, but to drift along with that feeling of the blues form without playing the blues per se or even a sense of steady time.  It's kind of a mirage in that we're giving the blues flavor without purposely playing the blues format. 

Tafuri: Like you were taking about earlier, I agree that it's exceptional to have a quartet that's been working for as long as it has.

Liebman: Absolutely.

Tafuri: How do you think that plays into a track like this, where things are not as notated but more felt?

Liebman: Well, it comes from the beauty of empathy and knowing each other, and that's the thing about it.  I mean, even if you play a limited number of days per year — I mean, I'm not gonna say we work six, nine months a year — we still get together on some sort of regular basis (and do what we can gigwise) to keep the repertoire going.  I'd be hard pressed to know of bands that have more repertoire than we have, as far as the number of tunes and number of recordings I've done with them.  It's about a confidence that comes from knowing how somebody's going to handle material, the feeling you can rehearse something that's going to get down right, and the kinds of things that can happen on the bandstand when you know each other and you don't have to think about and talk about, so it doesn't have to be "directed" or notated.  That's the great advantage of having guys you play with all the time.  I mean, you get used to guys and you say, "Boy, I wish he could play something different"  — I mean, they probably say that about me, also — which would happen if you were to hire different guys every time (and it does, when you do that).  But instead there's the beauty of knowing there's this great reservoir of understanding and empathy (and of just liking the guy and liking the way the guy plays) that you depend on, so you are able to do things like you're referring to.

Tafuri: So, you're able to go new "places" confidently.

Liebman: Yes, exactly.  Trust.  Everything is about trust in this music.  I mean, there's skill, of course; you have to master a certain level of skill.  But when it comes down to improvising, the first thing I tell anybody is that you have to trust who you're playing with, that a musical gesture is being done to enhance the music without any musical personality, from the sense that nobody's doing anything to make a point egowise or just to "show themselves in a light."  They're making it, because they hear it and feel it.  That may sound obvious, but it's not,when you play with people.  It's not that you might turn around and say, "Why'd you play that, man?  Are you trying to show me up?" or something like that.  It's not literally like that.  But more in the positive sense that any musical gesture that's done in a band where members understand each other you take on faith as the absolute truth in the moment, and you react to it — rather than saying, ‘I wish he hadn't done that' or ‘why did he do that' or ‘would he change that?'  Instead, you say, ‘I know that, I trust him, let's go!'  So, that means that right away you're "creating" instead of "questioning."

Tafuri: Playing in a band requires a sort of "selflessness," I guess.

Liebman: Right.  Exactly.  And they do have that after they get to know each other and trust each other and like each other.  It's they natural way between people.  It happens that way in any natural human intercourse.  But certainly in improvisation, which is really a very sensitive situation, it's quite an important thing. 

Tafuri: That's what make music like this from veterans more real or believable sometimes than from some people (and I don't want to say "younger," but from some people) who are "new" to playing the music who are starting out trying to be "a star." You know what I'm talking about.

Liebman: Absolutely!  As far as I'm concerned, the audience is being shortchanged when they see a group "posing" (and, again, I don't want to be negative, but) or "passing" as a "group."  The audience deserves a group who've had that discussion before and, of course, the audience doesn't know that.  That's the difference between our ears now and back then when you and I were coming up hearing bands that were together for five years or six years.  You may be getting great musicianship and repertoire, but you're getting less of what jazz is about, which is communication between the musicians and the audience being a part of that by being "in on the party." When it's a group that's been together, I think the audience is getting the full Monty. 

Tafuri: Well, you pay tribute on this recording to Elvis, who was somewhat of a boyhood "hero" to you, but you also pay tribute by extending the sound and concept of a piece from what's one of my favorite "R&B" records (and what may be on lots of people's lists), Swiss Movement, that great version of "Compared to What" in "Compared to Who."

Liebman: It's definitely a play-on-words on "Compared to What."  In fact, the first title [Vic] had when he didn't have a title was "Eddie Harris" or "To Eddie" or something like that.  I thought, ‘Let's try to create a title a little more akin to what we're talking about." Yeah, that's really a different kind of milieu or feel for me.  I think listeners who know me are really going to say, "I never hear Lieb play like that" [chuckles] ... unless they were somehow able to go back and hear me when I was twelve years old playing that blues scale.  I love playing in that feel; I love playing that tune. 

Tafuri: Yeah, I know.  A couple of times when we were in the studio, I felt like we should have started a take off in the same way James Brown did sometimes when he was in the studio by exclaiming, "It's a hit!"

Liebman: [Chuckles.]  It ends up giving — playing in that playing in that manner with that feel, as a couple of the tunes — giving the album a more (what shall we say) "commercial" feel.  The word "commercial," in the sense, means "accessible."  A listener who doesn't have an "attitude" [laughs] — I mean, an esoteric attitude — who comes in and listens to something like this can't help but enjoy it, because the blues is in everybody's brain ... and, of course, the rhythm that goes along with it and on a couple of other tracks.  From a novice listener to an advanced listener (if they come in with an open mind and don't say, ‘Aw, this is not jazz' or any of that stuff), they can't help but get it, because this is universal — that's the thing about the blues.  It's universal and across-the-boards.  It's not just "American" anymore; it may have been incubated here, but the feeling is everywhere.  I mean, Indian music, Swedish music, it's everywhere.  It's not just the blues scale or the blues chords, it's the blues vibe

Tafuri: And what's wrong with people feeling the music when it comes to "jazz," right? 

Liebman: God, I would hope so!

Tafuri: You know, Davie, "Real Jazz." It's gotten to the point where the music is so intellectualized that that feeling is gone.

Liebman: Well, I've certainly been guilty of that — sometimes knowingly because of other reasons I wanted to push and explore — but certainly "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" or that kind of creed that underlies basic jazz and its roots is wonderful to celebrate every once in a while, and I think this record captures that, too.

Tafuri: There's another tune, too, (and maybe you can't comment on it, because it's now one of your tunes) is "Blues Tripper."

Liebman: That's another of Vic's odd-meter (you know, out of 4/4) vamp with a blues feel.  It's similar to "Compared to Who," but in a different way.  The thing you notice about "Compared to Who" and "Blues Tripper" are they're very guitar-oriented ... as is "Elvis the Pelvis."  It's like The Ventures and Duane Eddy and all that stuff in the '50s with the guitar doubling the bass line, kind of playing bass chords and theme.  Vic happens to be a guitar player who came up in the rock & roll tradition.  He's a "New Jersey rock and roll guitar player." There's a whole genre right there.  That's where he started.  If you were having this same discussion with him, he'd be saying some of the same things I said, "Aw, this goes back to what I was playing when I was a teenager in the equivalent of what a ‘garage band' was then."  So, that's what "Blues Tripper" reminds me of.

Tafuri: There are all these tunes on the record — "Elvis the Pelvis" and "Compared to Who" and "Down Time" and "Night Tripper" — and then there's one called "64 Strings and a Reed." 

Liebman:  Yeah.  An odd title, an odd tune, and a great story.  I was in New Orleans with friends, and the woman was a violinist in the tradition of (I don't know what to call it) Scottish or English folk songs or, I guess, the predecessor of what we call "bluegrass."

Tafuri: Scotting fiddling.

Liebman: Yeah, "fiddling" stuff, and I don't know anything about that.  And she said, "Oh, there's a jam session at a little place I like to go."  So, I went and I counted eight guitarists — but somehow I got 64 strings — having a jam session at this funky place in pre-Katrina New Orleans, playing blues-type things.  I had the soprano, and I just "sat in" and stuff.  Hence, the title — with the feel of Vic on steel-string guitar getting that kind of feel, the chords in my type of harmonic intent, and the feeling of an old kind of shuffle that's "stringy" — that's all I could call it, "64 Strings and a Reed."  It's a little different with the bass and those kind of chords, but trying to get that kind of "down-home," earthy feel, but abstracted harmonically. 

Tafuri: It does have that kind of feel, but it also has this kind of "dark and mysterious" vibe, too.

Liebman: Well, as I remember that jam session, it was very different.  [Laughs.]  These people communicated — they would just start a tune and everyone would know it — well, I guess, like we do during a jam session.  It was great.

Tafuri: Well, you go from something like that — rockin' and groovin' — and then you have a burner on here, too: "Below the Radar."

Liebman: Without going into a blues primer, there are several distinct kinds of blues formats that have come up in jazz.  Of course, the very, very early — Louie Armstrong and the "old stuff," then there's Charlie Parker's "Blue for Alice" format which uses a different set of chords to play the blues, then there's Miles and what he did with "All Blues" — a modal type of effect.  And then there's Coltrane, who went from "Bessie's Blues" (that we did on the record) to what we call "pentatonic blues," where the F pentatonic scale works across the board, and that's what "Below the Radar" is: a modern (well, it's not "modern" anymore, but the most recent form of the) blues.  Then, in the '60s, there was Chick Corea and Matrix and a more modal effect, but still with the I-IV-V basic harmonic intent. 
Of course, with Coltrane being somewhat the inspiration for this record with the  Coltrane Plays the Blues record, I wanted to do one tune that was in "the repertoire," and that's "Bessie's Blues," for Bessie Smith.  (And I forgot to mention that "Down Time" has a little bit of the "Giant Steps" chord progression in it; "Down Time" is full of all kinds of musical sub-meanings.)  That kind of takes it "full circle" from Elvis to Coltrane to a "country blues" to the Eddie Harris stuff; that's what I really tried to do: cover the blues in a contemporary way, but going backward and forward at the same time.

Tafuri: And there's one other tune, "Riz's Blues."

Liebman: It's probably my favorite tune on the record, structurally.  It was for a gentleman who I knew who died recently, Frank Rizzo, and it captures three aspects of his personality.  The sadness of his life, because his life was a little sad, and that's the beginning part; it's kind of a modal thing.  The middle part is the blues — and that's the way he lived — in the dominant chord, the really "main chord" we hear in blues.  And then the last part is a little unusual, in that I don't think I've ever heard anything like it.  The first part sounds a little bit like "Equinox," the second part is a more standard type of thing, and the third part is a "major blues," and you don't usually equate the blues with a major key, and that's what I did on that one.  I tried to seamlessly go through three parts and make some sense out of it but, in a way, they're three separate tunes, depicting the life of this person who I respected and liked a lot.  That major part at the end, I think is a little unusual harmonically, but the thing is that all three parts are twelve-bar form. 

Tafuri: Nice way to wrap it up, Dave, by doing twists on the basic, twelve-bar format.

©2018 OmniTone