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David Liebman Big Band: Beyond the Line

The level of musicianship displayed by the 18-piece David Liebman Big Band on its recorded debut, Beyond the Line (OmniTone), is nothing short of breathtaking. I’m talking about every aspect of musicianship: Liebman’s astonishing soprano sax work; the imaginative colors captured by the six arrangers used for the session, among whom Jim McNeely has to be singled out; the concerted discipline of the East Coast players who wrestle with charts that constantly waver between tonality and atonality and seldom give sections the luxury of straightahead swing; and the gifted soloists who are not intimidated by unorthodox changes that stray way beyond the line. And conductor Gunnar Mossblad has translated Liebman’s eclectic wishes as if he were the saxophonist’s musical alter ego.

“Hiroshima Memorial” is not a mere track; it’s a tone poem in which Liebman sets the mood with wood flute. You can almost hear the airplane coming, the bombs falling. “Done With Restraint” is akin to contemporary chamber music, often devoid of a tonal center and seemingly free of bar lines-and talk about contrast: it flows seamlessly into a sensuous acoustic guitar set-up by guitarist Vic Juris for the Latin swinger “Pablo’s Story,” which is dedicated to Picasso.

Stealing the spotlight is McNeely’s Grammy-nominated arrangement of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the only non-Liebman composition on the CD. It’s a brilliant update of riffs from the Goodman classic, heightened by Liebman and the band trading fours, twos, even ones, with every hair in place. It’s an amazing tour de force.

Among the soloists credited is “the band” for “Fracas,” and justifiably so. That is one fiendishly difficult Alan Blaylock chart that former Liebman drummer Billy Hart described as “a fracas, man!” True, but engineers Peter Karl and John C. Fishell keep this melee sounding crystal clear.

Originally Published