"Going Beyond the Line: An Inside View of David Liebman and the Evolution of His Big Band"
by Patrick Dorian, Music Department, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

David Liebman Big Band

In his never-ending worldwide pursuit and execution of significant artistic music, David Liebman absorbs the world and gives it back to us through his compositions and performed improvisations. For decades, accomplished arrangers/composers have enthusiastically taken Liebman works and orchestrated them for 17 musicians and soloist "Lieb" in a big-band/jazz orchestra setting. David has performed dozens of these gems with various big bands around the world. The compact disc Beyond the Line (BTL) contains Lieb's premium choices from these expanded efforts and is rich documentation of the first phase of his own big band (October 2000 through February 2001). The perspective of this narrative is from within the artistic cell of the David Liebman Big Band, much in the same manner as my previous Sideman Chronicles.


David Liebman is now in his seventh decade of going beyond the line both artistically and personally. He has functioned in persevering mode ever since he contracted polio in 1949 at age 3. Having survived that ordeal has molded his approach to life. Growing up in Brooklyn with lots of neighborhood street sensibilities, he earned a history degree at a heralded academic institution (NYU), all the while going intellectually BTL with his music studies outside of the university. Thanks to his demanding liberal arts foundation, Lieb is one of the most verbally articulate of today's masters when he appears at educational workshops and in teaching videos and media interviews. His well-documented stories of how his first two important employers (Elvin and Miles) pushed him BTL are strong evidence of what factors influenced his future career as a leader. David saw how Miles took established musical properties, modified them, and carried them BTL in an entirely different, totally justifiable direction. The tune "Beyond the Line" was named after an unpleasant, destructive incident, but it can also be an appropriate, constructive overture for his efforts toward everything he has accomplished. If Hollywood were to make a movie about his life, David would have to be played by Sisyphus (without the punishment theme), whereas films about wannabe artists might feature Icaran actors. Any doubt where this author stands?


David had thought for several years about a big band that he could call his own. In Y2K, he enlisted the assistance of Gunnar Mossblad, tireless woodwind sideman, leader, transcriber, and educator, to assemble and conduct a big band of experienced, enthusiastic musicians who would go BTL with Lieb. As you listen to this recording, experiencing the orchestrations with soloist, it needs to be mentioned that it was apparent from the initial formation of the group that the whole would be greater than the sum of its impressive parts. The inner workings of this ensemble needed to be and would end up being formidable. Lieb's artistry demands accompaniment by artists who can process their parts into the many types of canvases on which David executes his sound paintings. When David improvises, he does not only paint with primary colors. His seemingly endless palette of subtle shadings goes far BTL of mainstream efforts and results in the sonic essence of David Liebman. His works demand several listenings--as few of them should be accepted for the initial impression.

Copious recording experience was interspersed throughout the band, including seasoned studio veterans, the likes of trumpeter Laurie Frink, trombonist Sam Burtis, and guitarist Vic Juris. Of the 17 sidepeople (respectfully including Ms. Frink), a minimum of 6 had at least one recent compact disc release as leaders themselves on highly respected jazz recording labels. The BTL orchestrations would be more conceptually challenging, interesting, and valuable than a vast majority of the music the ensemble members performed in Broadway shows, commercial jingle recording sessions, tours with groups such as the Rolling Stones, and celebration music for special events. Ironically, income from David's project was not an issue for these professional artists, as there was an overwhelming vibe that any income realized from performances was simply gravy and/or icing on the already enriched cake.

In the mid- to late 1990s, virtuoso small-jazz group leaders such as Phil Woods and Dave Holland formed big bands, retaining the ace melodic statements and virtuosic improvisations of their established quintets as the nucleus of a larger ensemble. This way they could keep their working quintet intact while enjoying the deep variety of textural densities and orchestral colors that a big band affords experienced, artistic arrangers. To students of Western music history, I've often thought that this approach must parallel in a striking manner the compositional technique used in the concerto grosso of the latter part of the Baroque Era (1600-1750), where a small group of virtuoso soloists called the concertino were featured among the larger accompanying ensemble that formed the main orchestral body known as the ripieno or tutti. The David Liebman Big Band operates in a similar manner, featuring his established quartet of guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Marko Marcinko.

Process: Preparation & Performances

The band rehearsed in Manhattan, with northeastern Pennsylvania residents Liebman, Marino, Marcinko, and myself traveling there. The first performance of the David Liebman Big Band was in October 2000 with a concert for the "East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania Celebration 2000." Master musician Phil Woods lives near the university, attended the event, and thoroughly enjoyed Lieb and the band's abstract expressionist flavor, stating, "This band could do a month of one-nighters in Germany!" David also lives near ESU, and the university provided generous funding, enabling the band to rehearse and establish its unique sound. This financial boost assisted subsequent performances with an ever-expanding repertoire over the next couple of months at the Knitting Factory in New York, the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, PA (also near Dave's residence), and Birdland in New York. During the New Year's Eve weekend at Birdland, the band did well Friday night; however, a major snowstorm crippled Manhattan the next morning. But wait a minute--our sage Lieb had sent most of the band home after the last set on Friday, retaining only Tony and Marko for a small-group performance. The next night (December 30), Roberta Piket came around the corner to play piano. Midtown had thousands of hotel rooms filled with New Year's Eve revelers for the weekend, many of whom walked a blizzarded block or two to Birdland, unpredictably selling out the place. Amazing! When life gives you lemons...

In January 2001, the band performed eight blocks up from Birdland at the 28th Annual International Association of Jazz Educators International Conference for an audience that truly reflected the ever-increasing global nature of this organization. At this performance, a recording was made, and selections were streamed over the Internet on the Global Music Network.

Execution: The Recording Session

With these performances as part of the ensemble's mindset, the band went into the studio to record a compact disc on Monday, February 26. The session couldn't start until the end of a typical workday at 5:15pm, since the studio shared a building with a high-powered machine shop (location, location, location!). During the noontime hour, I was waiting for David to pick me up at my office in the Fine & Performing Arts Center at East Stroudsburg University. At 12:35pm, I spotted Lieb leaning against the door as if ready to collapse. He was ill and asked me to drive us in his car to West Orange, NJ, to pick up Vic. Lieb fell asleep most of the way through Jersey (a wise move at any time of day or night) and we arrived at Vic's place. He was suddenly feeling much better and took over the wheel, driving us through the Holland Tunnel and through lower Manhattan in probably the same manner that he used to drive a NYC cab in the late 1960s. Next, we were across the Manhattan Bridge and into the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, the location of the recording studio. We found the studio at 3pm but couldn't go in to set up the rhythm section until 4pm, so we hovered and circled, getting coffee and scoping out the oh-so-coveted on-the-street free parking for later. The following week I sent a message to Lieb, suggesting that he title the Big Band CD Gowanus Jones ... never heard back on that one...

The band trickled in professionally early, just like I've observed the habits of so many of the legendary musicians such as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, and Stanley Turrentine. Get there ahead of time, then play behind the time! The rhythm section set up amplifiers and synthesizers, including Marko's array of percussion equipment in the drum isolation room. The entire studio was quite large, but with the 13 wind instruments in the center of the main room, Marko would have difficulty seeing Gunnar's and Lieb's musical gestures during recording and would at times shift over to a sixth sense beyond auditory intuition to execute some parts of the music. Levels for each microphone were set in the main control room, and as of 5:30 we were assured the connecting machine shop artists had had enough for the day: roll the tape!

As usual, Gunnar had stayed up many nights before the recording session playing devil's advocate with the conductor's score and section parts, helping the band avert possible confusion in the more complex sections of pieces. He occasionally wrote out manuscript lines to clarify difficult entrances and passages because certain parts were quite challenging to interlock and contrast between the various sections of the group. He and Lieb had basically plotted out a 15-minute by 15-minute blueprint of how we were to complete the recording of this CD in 8 hours. Plan B: if we fell behind in the schedule, we would simply keep going until done.

Gunnar checked the tempo of the first tune with David, and with Lieb's approval, he started the countoff. Appropriate advice here might be the phrase that Jaco frequently used at the beginning of performances: "Strap on in!" The total recording experience of the people in the room added up to several hundred years, and performers had positioned themselves, sensing the best angle to place the microphone and their instruments. Lieb's first improvised solo sounded typical of his expressive use of chromaticism, a term he has borrowed and expanded from 20th-century symphonic and chamber music composers and theoreticians. He has stretched the ears of jazz performers and listeners alike by taking basic, familiar harmonic components and superimposing an advanced harmonic language over them. He chooses pitches beyond the typical jazz improvisation note choice extensions, yet upon detailed analysis, his system justifies intellectually each pitch's harmonic vertical function. (It must be noted here that this is not to be confused with Phil Woods's humorous advice to other musicians that "if you get lost during your solo, play chromatics!")

After several minutes of recording, Lieb and Gunnar went into the control room to get a sense of the overall sound of the group by listening to playback. They returned momentarily and we were off for extended periods of recording and some stopping and starting to make sure that entire sections of pieces were executed faithfully to Lieb's original compositional intentions and the intended artistry of each arranger. A few more selections were completed and the band took a break. Members vacillated between listening to playback and going to a nearby storage room where they discussed recent musical projects. The trombonists lamented the recent passing of J. J. Johnson.

Back into the main room to record a few more tunes, the hours got used up quickly. As the evening progressed, food was ordered. Lieb improvised on a small wooden flute that suddenly turned the recording session in Gowanus into a world- and time-conscious auditory atmospheric experience. As advanced as his concepts can be, he supplemented that intellectualism with the wisdom of the ages on one of the first musical instruments known to humankind, right there behind the human voice, whistling, and the hollowed-out log. At times this performed primitivism sounded more hauntingly vocal than instrumental, and yet he looked ahead as he reached thousands of years sonically into the past. Which part of the world used the wooden flute first? It probably was constructed and modified in many places, unbeknownst to other civilizations. It's just that basic and logical to human needs.

The food was delivered after midnight and might have been described as a varied selection of Mexican-Latvian wraps, but sustenance is sustenance 8 hours into a recording session. A few more tunes and it looked as if the session was almost complete around 2:30am. More review of playback revealed nothing else was needed from the performers and all departed the building by 3:15. We would have needed to leave the building anyway, since the early shift of the machine shop was about to start their engines, and, of course, they couldn't have big-band jazz coming through the walls during their workday ... what's fair is fair.


Lieb drove to West Orange to sleep at Vic's a few hours before going BTL the next morning, teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. Tony Marino chauffeured Marcinko and me back to Pennsylvania. While crossing the East River, I looked to the right to see if I could spot a 3:30am Sonny-like apparition on Newk's Bridge (aka the Williamsburg Bridge) as though it were 1961 instead of 2001. We left the Manhattan Bridge and moved through lower Manhattan quickly on Canal Street. We were fairly close to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and their lighted appearance was striking. It's the last time I'd be in such close proximity, but not knowing this, I was thinking back to ages ago when I'd gone up to the impressive 107th floor and the Greatest Bar on Earth with the connecting Windows on the World restaurant.

Recently, Lieb and I had gone into New York together for rehearsal, then errands, then relaxing for "a taste" and dinner. At 3:45am on the night of the recording, I made a personal pact that the next time we were in NYC, I'd tell him that I had an interesting place for us to go and I'd guide us there in as deceiving a manner as possible to surprise him. Ascending and imbibing with Lieb would be my way of telling him that despite roadblocks to recognition, in many ways he is at the top of the artistic world. I hinted at this journey over the next months, but it was not to be. (Advanced artists like Lieb sometimes have frustration as they attempt to get the public and the jazz industry to listen closely to their next phase. David needs no validation, but he also has very fulfilling victories, such as when Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and he perform as the Three Tenors with rhythm section. David may not even know how revered he is by the people who truly count, since he's not able to see the intense concentration and joy on Brecker's and Lovano's faces when he's soloing.) The web site for the Greatest Bar on Earth and Windows on the World restaurant would be turned into a memorial for deceased employees.

Through the Holland Tunnel, we passed the toll booths, traveled a few hundred feet more, and stopped at the infamous Tunnel Diner for bagels, muffins, and coffee. Marko and I got Tony's order and went inside as half a dozen people of the night silently acknowledged us with a welcome-to-our-world look in their eyes. This situation had major BTL potential. I submitted our take-out order and Marko hit the head. Within minutes, half of the clientele had requested special funding from me, so I moved away, toward the window, and noticed that Tony and the van were nowhere in sight. Not good. Not funny, either. Marko returned for air and told me Tony had gone for fuel. I began to feel a bit better, even though I had no idea we were scant blocks from explosive Islamic Jihad cells (think caves) where plans had been concocted to bring down one of the towers in 1993 and where rooftop celebrations involving much jumping and cheering would be held as each tower fell a few months later.

Our server brought our bags in an unexplained frenzy of excitement, but he wasn't as excited as we were to bid adieu. The three Jersey City police officers at the other end of the counter had done their job by having a presence that kept interactions among patrons nonviolent and we hit the highway at 4:15. I'd be home by 5:30, Marko by 6:15, and Tony before 7. Marko wondered aloud if he should reschedule his 9am drum student at Lehigh University, which is an hour drive from his bed. Why not? Give the student a double lesson next time ... enough going BTL for one day.

Epilogue: 6 Months and 17 Days Hence

September 12, 2001: Classes resumed at East Stroudsburg University after the campus was closed down at noon the previous day. I had recently received a rough demo mix of the David Liebman Big Band recording session. Students and faculty were in extremely reserved moods, and for each of the three classes that I taught that day and evening, we spoke very little but listened to the David Liebman Big Band recording of "Hiroshima Memorial." I hoped this music might reflectively express, much better than discussion, the emotions of fright, chaos, tragedy, and sense of loss common to both events. We would have decades to talk about September 11, just as we have discussed and studied 1945 Japan. David's niece's husband's brother was a firefighter lost in the tragedy. They would find portions of him the following April ... the ultimate BTL ...


Perhaps the placement of the opening and closing selections on the big-band recording is a powerful, if subliminal, statement. Opening the compact disc, "Hiroshima Memorial" may grab the listener almost bodily with its timeless, expressionist relevance to current events, while the final track, "Pablo's Story," takes the listener to a place where beauty and truth are finally realized after years of artistic questioning. Vic's acoustic guitar tone immediately lets the listener know that something different will be concluding the package. Picasso always went BTL as he stretched the eyes of observers for decades, as has Liebman been stretching the ears of listeners. Lieb once again takes basic thematic material and builds his improvisational expressionism, at times using frenetic, artistic synergy of auditory images. The final few minutes of the track reveal Lieb's true artistry as he, awash in a body of Lydian sonorities, bathes the listener in a mostly consonant presentation of traditional beauty. He could possibly be producing a musical landscape while standing near the top of Montmartre, a striking Parisian sunset behind him. But, through occasional interspersions of "Liebisms," he doesn't let us forget that it is this particular master's voice and large ensemble that we have experienced for one hour, right up to a striking reminder of a fundamental element of the tradition: the tonal properties of the solo acoustic guitar executing a major sonority, giving exquisitely pristine closure to the first phase of the David Liebman Big Band.

Patrick Dorian
Music Department
East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

©2018 OmniTone