David Liebman

The Distance Runner
hatOLOGY 628

By Ken Waxman

New York-based saxophonist David Liebman is the epitome of the self-aware contemporary saxophonist: conspicuously primed for any situation.

Veteran of hundreds of recordings, with an apprenticeship in drummer Elvin Jones' and trumpeter Miles Davis' bands, not only has he flirted with mainstream jazz, chamber music, fusion, and free playing, but his worldwide teaching activities have included time spent at universities and giving clinics, as well as authorship of books on harmony, melody, and developing a personal saxophone style.

Despite this renown, the sixty-year-old reedist continues to challenge himself, whether it's playing with Hungarian big bands, small Latin jazz groups, in free-form duos, or on this memorable CD. The Distance Runner—the title is pretty apt—captures Liebman's first-ever public solo concert. Recorded at the Willisau Jazz Festival in Switzerland, it features his soprano and tenor saxophones and wooden flute on seven longish tracks.

Honouring his saxophone heroes on three tracks, "The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner: Mind and Body" (Steve Lacy), "Petite Fleur" (Sidney Bechet) and "Peace on Earth" (John Coltrane), Liebman also defines his own parameters. He's a consolidator, rather than an innovator, and a melodist as well, rather than an abstractionist like Lacy or Coltrane.

In essence, this CD is an essay on how to construct a solo concert without frightening any but the most reactionary. Throughout, Liebman's well-paced, undulating lines are often low-pitched, with a gentle almost Lester Young-ish tone on both saxophones. When he growls and/or breaks up his output, Liebman quickly reverts to legato phrasing. Invariably, as well, he ends most tunes with a showy cadenza to let the audience know he's completed his thoughts and is ready for applause. Conventionally, he backs into the themes of "Fleur" and "Peace," expressing his honking, double-tonguing and false register variations at the top so that he can downshift into an unbroken mellowness when he plays the heads.

This doesn't preclude experimentation, however. On "Mother; Father," for instance, before bringing out his tenor saxophone for well-modulated pitch vibrations, he showcases melismatic phrasing, as his wooden flute vibrates with Oriental colours, as if it was a ba-hu or a zheng. Some of the other pieces emphasize the metallic qualities of his saxophones.

Most spectacularly, the almost-sixteen-minute "Time Immemorial: Before, Then, Now, After" finds him commenting with Tranesque cadences on the background reproduction of an earlier recording of him playing four overdubbed alto saxophones. Utilized as found sounds, those enjoined sax lines are tweaked to provide twisted pulsations and buzzing broken octave oscillations. On top of all this, the live saxman essays different strategies: at one point moderated split tones, and at another wandering coloratura lines. Before he lets reverberate a finale of gently packed legato timbres he puts out a selection of shrill, almost ear-splitting falsetto whistles.

This out-of-character willingness to produce the unexpected shows that in spite of conventional manners, Liebman sustains the impulses of a committed, ever-searching improviser.

In MusicWorks Issue #95