The legacy of Miles Davis continues to loom large over the music world – Kenny Garrett has been prominant as a solo artist as well as with Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, and veterans like Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Jack Dejohnette, Keith Jarrett and and others are still major players. Then there is reedman Dave Liebman, arguably the last featured saxophone player before Garrett, as Miles moved away from the sax and towards the guitar for most of the 70s and through the late-80s.
Dave Liebman has made major contributions to jazz through the years, with Lookout Farm and has continued to be prolific – I reviewed his Ornette Coleman tribute here. So how does he do paired with Michael Stephans looking back at decades of rock and pop music? Let’s take a look!
Dave Liebman was born in the 1940s and spent his teen years learning music just as the rock’n'roll revolution swept all over the world. His love of jazz came after hearing John Coltrane nearly a decade later, and he was on his way. Listening to his music with Miles and his Lookout Farm project is instructive, but is only a starting point.
Michael Stephans is also a baby boomer, who focused his studies on education and the role of jazz in music education and produced some groundbreaking academic work on the topic. But aside from his role as teacher, he has always been a skilled and in-demand drummer and composer. He focused on studio work in the late-70s through mid-80s, and through the years worked with everyone from Shirley MacLaine to David Bowie and the Rolling Stones! He then focused on education for many years before relocating to the Poconos in 2006, which has allowed him to continue teaching as a professor while recording with some of the big names in jazz.
Lineage is a project that Liebman and Stephans have discussed for several years, even making wish lists of songs – but the timing just never worked out until now. They call the project a set of “rock and pop classics revisited,” which allows them to look back on the music that shaped them early in their musical development.
I always have a fear with tributes – that they will be TOO reverential, and therefore safe and boring. When I looked at the track list I could see it going either way, and as noted in my review of his ‘Turnaround’ CD I found it less adventurous than the near-simultaneously released Jamaaladeen Tacuma tribute to Ornette. Still, even if the arrangements were traditional I doubted that ‘boring’ would be a problem with Dave Liebman, and fortunately I was correct. In fact, my expectations were greatly exceeded.
Look – when your first song is ‘Mr. Sandman’, the expectations for harmonic complexity are rather low! But as Liebman notes, he has been working on developing his own harmonic language for years, and here we get a great example of the possibilities. The song is there the whole time, but by opening up the harmonic structure, it allows for endless improvisational possibilities. The end result is something edgy and modern and compelling out of what is a stereotypically cheesy song.
The band joining Liebman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Michael Stephens on drums and percussion includes Evan Gregor on acoustic and electric bass, Vic Juris on guitars, Bobby Avey on keyboards, and Matt Vashlisan on alto and soprano saxophones, flute, EWI, and clarinet. The double reeds and combined guitar and piano provide an expansive sonic palette for Liebman’s musings.
The Beatles are featured twice on the album with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, both from the Revolver album. The former has been covered extensively in pretty much every genre, including a great version by Al Di Meola earlier this year. Liebman once again opens up the harmonic structure, putting it in stark contrast to the more faithful Di Meola version. And again the results are spectacular – by starting with such a solid base and opening it up, Liebman allows the group to explore the possibilities outside of the strict harmonic structure – but maintains a respectful degree of faithfulness to the original song. Again, it is at once a Liebman original and a pure Beatles song.
‘Here, There and Everywhere’ has had plenty of covers like nearly all of the Beatle’s catalog, but is not one of the best known cover-targets. There is a reason for that – the non-standard pop structure is at once challenging and constraining. Because it has a shifting chromatic line that takes a couple of unexpected turns, most pop readings are simple recitations. But like a Monk song, for a great jazz artist these constraints are more of a challenge than an impediment.
Two of my absolute faves here are more brooding and slow-burning songs – Stevie Wonder’s ‘Visions’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’. I get into some detail about ‘Visions’ later, but I have always preferred Joni’s darker and more haunting version to the upbeat CSNY reading. So I was thrilled that Liebman seemed to use the Mitchell version as his jumping off point. The way she threads dissonance and leaping intervals plays well with Liebman’s style, and the result is a dramatic musical moment that gave me chills on me first listening.
The rest of the album is equally solid, with great arrangements and classic songs and excellent playing. And it is the playing that deserves further highlighting. Liebman and Stephans are leading the effort, but they are generous artists who recognize the value in collaboration with talented younger musicians. They have enlisted long-time Liebman collaborator Vic Juris on guitar, and also bridged the generation gap with Gregor, Avey, Stephans and Vashlisan – all of whom are younger than most of the songs on the album. But their modern sensibilities only add to the open interpretations Liebman has crafted.
My Favorite Song: “Visions” – there are a number of great songs here, but the gorgeous Stevie Wonder song from Innervisions is the best example of a song that at once allows the musicians to stamp their own imprint through a novel arrangement and improvisation, and yet remains a ‘Stevie’ classic all the same.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! As both a retrospective look and a very modern jazz recording the album is a success. My whole family could jam to ‘Mr. Sandman’, and the Beatles tunes were familiar – and Wipe Out and Tequila of course! Too often jazz that works for my whole family is ‘compromise music’ like the Rippingtons, so I love it when something like this comes along that everyone else enjoys but is also satisfying to me on a visceral and cerebral level. That is a standard that is hard to achieve.
Here are Liebman and Stephans discussing Lineage:
Source: Publisher provided CD