Saxophonist Dave Liebman headed to Lovin' Cup

By Jeff Spevak, Staff writer
October 9, 2014

Something golden, nearly forgotten, has been slipping away from us for decades now. Minds and spirits are being overrun by the 21st century, as well as the inevitable decline of the physical body.

"I'm not the only guy who played with Miles and Elvin Jones," Dave Liebman says. "But we are becoming increasingly few as the years go on."

Trumpeter Miles Davis. The drummer Elvin Jones. Both icons, both now gone. Liebman played sax in their bands. That was in the early '70s. "In a three- to four-year period, that obviously changed my life," he says. "To be around that history."

That also means that Liebman himself is a little bit of history. Sixty-eight years old, influential as a player wandering the fields of avant-garde, fusion, standards, big band, classical, rock and progressive post-bop jazz. And influential as a teacher as well. A man who seems to understand that, if he keeps moving, change may not get the better of him. Even now.

"I had a great band for several decades, we did about 20 records together," Liebman says. "But I didn't want to stay the status quo. I didn't want to play what was comfortable, what was expected of you. You always hear different stuff going on. I was hearing ways of playing that mystified me to some extent. If I hear something I don't understand, I'm pissed at myself. I feel like I gotta get on board.

"You're always affected by what's around you. You form a band to get people around you. Get the young cats who are talking different and jump on the train. I didn't want to be left out on the party. The way to get invited to party is invite them to your house."

So on Saturday he's bringing his new young cats to Lovin' Cup Bistro & Brews. Expansions —The Dave Liebman Group. Tony Marino is on bass, he's a face that will be familiar to anyone who's seen Liebman over the years. But there will be three young guys as well. Pianist Bobby Avey, drummer Alex Ritz and Matt Vashlishan on alto sax, clarinet and flute. With Liebman, you might wonder why Expansions needs another reed player in the energetic Vashlishan, but the group draws its name from an expanded palette of sound. A mix of free jazz and re-arrangements of standards set to unexpected time signatures. And original compositions; Liebman has published over 100 songs over the years.

That's the train that Liebman is riding now. The veterans, the young guys. The teachers, the students. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. "Teaching is a pretty good window of what is going on currently," Liebman says. "One thing about teaching is, they're always 21."

And the 21-year-old students want to hear from their 68-year-old teacher about how it was in that golden era of jazz. When giants like John Coltrane walked the stage. "I saw 'Trane a couple of dozen times as teenager in the 50s," Liebman says. Liebman lives in the Poconos, which keeps him close to New York City, where "10 different things are happening in one night." But the way he talks — kinda fast — feels like the Brooklyn where he was born.

"A lot of those guys, it turned out, could be a completely different person from when they were playing," Liebman says of the guys he learned from, like Coltrane. "On the bandstand it was business 150 percent. No fooling around. No games. No fun. After they left the bandstand, it was chaos."

They were individuals, for sure, marching to the beat of different drummers. "Miles is Miles, he had a certain kind of personality, but I got along with him," Liebman says. "Elvin, he was giving, smart, he'd been around the block. Generous with his wit and wisdom. And when he left the stage, he would go and sit in the audience."

Over the years, playing on hundreds of albums, touring the world, Liebman worked with guitarists such as John Scofield, John McLaughlin and John Abercrombie. The pianists Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner and the Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino. He's a major part of one of Davis' most-unrestrained yet acclaimed albums, the distorted street funk of 1972's On the Street. His latest album is a tribute to Wayne Shorter, and he's recorded salutes to Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. He's done an album of Beatles music. Liebman shape shifts into whatever the moment calls for, moving from the tenor saxophone of that first major influence, Coltrane, to soprano sax and flute.

He's written books and recorded DVDs on how to play the sax. He offers advice on YouTube, where his students can also search for fuzzy videos of Liebman playing with Davis' fusion band, the musicians in colorful shirts and hairstyles that scream early '70s. As a teacher, Liebman sees himself as a conduit, a live connection between generations. "Older musicians like us, we have a responsibility," he says. "This music is threatened. Not to extinction, but things aren't going great.

"The power of music still attracts. The shift is toward schools, that's their major education now. It used to be you learned on the bandstand and whatever banter you picked up from the guys who'd been around. Now it's under white lights at 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

Almost by accident, Liebman's own experiences morphed into the International Association of Schools of Jazz, which he launched in 1990. He considers it his life's most-important work. Students from schools in more than 35 countries now, students from different parts of the world who are having as much an effect on jazz today as Davis, Jones and Coltrane did decades ago.

That's the seismic change. And Liebman doesn't seem troubled as well that it's now about books, not just bandstands. The world is creating more kids who want to play, but offering less venues for them. Liebman, who was being nominated for Grammys before these kids were born, is rolling with these new musicians who speak jazz in a different language, with their harmonic style and odd meters. He doesn't mind that he came from the world of Davis and Jones. Just as long as he also has a place in what's happening today.

There are other changes, far more troubling, as we see the world economies increasingly unable or unwilling to support the arts. Liebman's students must learn that reality as well.

"You have to be on the case 23 hours a day," he says. "You have to apply for grants, make connections. A young person, I have no idea how they're gonna do this. It's not just music. Look around, the middle class being completely swallowed up.

"What does a poet do? What does a painter do? A journalist, or a book writer? The whole business model has changed."