Near the close of an hour-long set by the Dave Liebman Expansions Group at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, which ran July 29-31, the soprano saxophonist and leader reminisced aloud about his very first Newport. Liebman is an imminently likable onstage personality, who explains and announces his program without overdoing it, mostly letting his earthy Brooklynite demeanor provide the charm. Anyway, he explained how in 1966 he’d been spending his Sundays in New York with a mentor, the saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd. In early July, Lloyd called on the 19-year-old for a favor: Could he drive his rhythm section up to a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival?
Jazz-history buffs should be able to place the band with little trouble: It was the unit that would record Forest Flower two months later and make Lloyd a baby-boomer hit, featuring pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Liebman’s roadie duties also allowed him to take in the final Newport appearance by John Coltrane, whose quintet included Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, wife Alice on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Rashied Ali on drums. A Trane disciple who’s spent a healthy chunk of his life decoding the master’s art, Liebman said he’d seen Coltrane many times at that point; still, the modestly attended set, which included “Welcome,” “Leo” and a locomotive take of “My Favorite Things” that spilled well past 20 minutes, has stayed with him. As if offering proof, Liebman led his band through a fantastic rendition of Trane’s “India,” underscoring both his thoughtful devotion and the strikingly intuitive rapport of his quintet.