June 13, 2024

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CD review: Dave Liebman – Live At Smalls 2023: Video, CD cover

Cellar Music Group has announced the February 3rd release of Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls. A thrilling free jazz outing, this 75-minute set finds the boundless soprano saxophonist in the company of four modern musical masters: trumpeter Peter Evans, pianist Leo Genovese, bassist John Hébert and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

Part of the Smalls LIVE Living Masters Series, this recorded set from the famed West Village nightclub showcases the daring virtuosity of one of the most forward-thinking minds in contemporary music, captured in front of an attentive live audience.

The release of Live at Smalls ushers in a new phase for the NEA Jazz Master – one that is focused on free improvisation. Since this live album was recorded in January 2022, Liebman has made a concerted effort to play in a free jazz setting, without the rules and guardrails playing tunes and composed music generally affords. “I have been recording since I was 16 years old,” Liebman reflected. “I have played everything and particularly a lot of the jazz language on over 500 records. I would like to spend this next stage of my artistic life focusing on playing free.”

It’s all very full circle. Liebman has regularly played free throughout his prolific career, though some periods have been more focused on it than others. The most blatant example would be during the loft scene – that golden period in the late 1960’s that has since taken on a bit of a mythical sheen in the modern day. From 1968-69, Liebman had a famous downtown loft with Dave Holland and Chick Corea also living in the loft space.

It was during this formative period that they would exclusively play free. “If we played two songs in time it was amazing,” Liebman said with a laugh, adding that they would frequently play for four or five hours at a time without pause, and never calling tunes, keys or tempos. “John Coltrane’s epic recording, Ascension, was a model for us and still carries the weight of John’s music today.”

Live at Smalls harkens back to that spirit. When the gig was booked, Liebman called four musicians he had played with at different times in varied contexts, but never together as an ensemble. The prospect of working with a new group of musicians was exciting, and served as a catalyst for fresh ideas to be explored on the bandstand. “I knew they could do it.

Most musicians love playing this way even if there may be difficulty getting started,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is that somehow when good musicians play like this, they know exactly when to stop and go. These guys played this music magnificently.”

Trumpeter Peter Evans is widely known in experimental and creative music circles for his singular approach to playing and modern improvisation. A master of his instrument, he is a perfect foil for Liebman, as the two of them make up the dynamic front line.

Prevalent pianist Leo Genovese, whose eclectic 2022 recording credits span Wayne Shorter to The Mars Volta, brings his distinctive touch to the hit, which Liebman described as “very empathetic to whoever he’s playing with”. Rounding out the rhythm section is respected bassist John Hébert, who can be heard on Liebman’s prior release, Trust and Honesty (Newvelle), as well as powerhouse drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

“When you are improvising without a sketch, you get to hear someone play in a deeper way than if they had the music in front of them,” commented Liebman. “Tyshawn handles this all in a very constructive and compositional style.”

Live at Smalls is certainly unorthodox for a commercial release. There are no true tunes and the split into three parts is arbitrary. It’s a 75 minute set, best enjoyed straight through as a visceral experience. While this type of music is often deemed as demanding for the casual listener, Liebman maintained that it doesn’t have to be.

“There are no rules, which also means the listener’s experience can be extremely liberating.” The resulting work is an expansive sonic exploration, which cements Liebman’s standing as one of the most creative voices in modern music.

Live at Smalls | Dave Liebman

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