Liner notes for David Liebman Group: Blues All Ways(OmniTone 12208)
"The reflection of the world
is like blues....
David Liebman, through his highly personal and probing saxophony, has been known for much of his 40+ year career as an innovator. The press has described him as "explor[ing] textures and tonalities where most are afraid to tread," as "a leader and artist of integrity and independent direction," and as having "a forceful complexity that no one, with the possible exception of John Coltrane, has been able to match."
Even so, after making nearly 100 recordings as leader and being featured player on nearly 200 recordings, ranging from "straight-ahead" jazz to fusion to avant garde (and even classical music), the imminent release of this recording Blues All Ways, his second for OmniTone, prompted Lieb to muse out loud.
"I think listeners who know me are really going to say, 'I never heard Lieb play like that," remarks Lieb about his playing on "Compared to Who," adding, "unless they were somehow able to go back and hear me when I was twelve years old playing that blues scale."
The "blues scale" Dave refers to is the first musical vehicle on which he recalls improvising while growing up in Brooklyn. "The first real music that I got into was '50s rock and roll," recalls Lieb, listing "Hound Dog" and "Rock around the Clock" as memorable examples of the era's R&B- based pop music culture and owing his first feeling for the tenor sax to tunes like Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser" and the Champs' "Tequila."
"I used to listen to Martin Block's 'Make-Believe Ballroom,' listing my own 'top 25 of the week' while collecting 45 singles," Lieb continues. "That was really where I first heard music, so in some ways making this blues record is full circle for me."
Dave's direct inspiration for the Blues All Ways project goes back to listening to Coltrane Plays the Blues, a record that, according to Lieb, "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," explains Dave. "And, much like Coltrane did, is to get the feeling, whether you're playing a traditional twelve-bar blues or not. 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."
Each of the resulting diverse and eminently listenable tunes on Blues All Ways is infused with a blues feeling, regardless of the specific format. And, because blues has pervaded almost all forms of popular music for the last 60 years, even when the music gets particularly adventurous, a listener's acquired affinity for the blues keeps the music accessible.
So, what better way to start a record that celebrates the scope and reach of the blues but to pay homage to The King on "Elvis the Pelvis"? "He was my first musical hero, so I wanted to celebrate his place in my background," reminisces Lieb. "I was ten years old in1956, and those tunes like 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Jailhouse Rock' were what I loved." The track drips with blues groove, courtesy of Vic Juris, Lieb's collaborator of fifteen years, and his guitar, "the prime blues instrument of all time," emphasizes Dave.
The jazzy "Down Time" is a "ten-bar" blues, a variation on the traditional twelve-bar blues form that omits the two-bar "turnaround," giving a feeling of propelling one chorus immediately into the next. (There's also a little "Giant Steps" mixed in as a musical nod to Trane.)
"Riz's Blues," written for Frank Rizzo, a late friend of Lieb's, is in three parts. The first part, which suggests Coltrane's "Equinox," depicts "the sadness of [Riz's] life." The more upbeat jazz blues of the middle section represents "the way he lived." And the last part features an optimistic-sounding — and harmonically uncharacteristic — blues in a major key that projects Lieb's hope for better things for Riz in the after-life.
Jimi Hendrix, Bitches' Brew, the Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motion quartet of Byablue, some Allman Brothers, and others get rolled into "Blues Mirage," a series of bluesy melodies in different musical keys and styles that use the blues scale. "The idea was to drift along with that feeling of the blues form without the blues per se," explains Dave. "It's kind of a mirage in that we're giving the blues flavor without purposely playing the blues format."
The soulful and funky blues of Eddie Harris and Les McCann's Swiss Movement pervade Vic Juris' "Compared to Who," replete with its play-on-words title. Contrast that to the slightly dark and mysterious "64 Strings and a Reed," inspired by an off-kilter jam session in New Orleans when Lieb invited to play his soprano with a pack of folk music fiddlers. Vic re-creates what Lieb describes as "an old-time shuffle that's 'stringy'," resulting in "a kind of 'down-home,' earthy feel, but abstracted harmonically."
"Blues Tripper," another tune by Vic Juris, who comes out of genre-defining New Jersey rock 'n' roll and organ trio traditions, reminds Dave of "The Ventures and Duane Eddy and all that stuff in the '50s with the guitar doubling the bass line."
And, considering the record that inspired this project, closing with Coltrane's "Bessie's Blues" (which Trane wrote in honor of seminal blues singer Bessie Smith) was obvious. "Including it takes the recording full-circle from Elvis to Coltrane to a 'country blues,'" notes Dave. "That's what I really tried to do: cover the blues in a contemporary way, but go backward and forward at the same time."
"It's universal," concludes Lieb. "That's the thing about the blues. 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. And it's not just the blues scale or the blues chords; it's the blues vibe."