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Dave Liebman: Hard Work

Saxophonist and educator doesn't slow down after being honored as a Jazz Master by the NEA

Dave Liebman (photo: Matt Vashlishan)
Dave Liebman (photo: Matt Vashlishan)

He is always, always busy, they’ll tell you. Dave Liebman’s inexhaustible work ethic is what makes the most profound impression on his colleagues. “It’s almost as if he’s on a mission,” says Gunnar Mossblad, a saxophonist who plays in and directs the Liebman Big Band. “We’ll work on a whole bunch of things, then we each go on tour … and when I check back in he’s found another project.”

“Lieb works extremely hard,” agrees Vic Juris, Liebman’s guitarist for nearly two decades. “He’s very organized, very professional. And he expects that from people who work for him.”

Yet Liebman is also known for his unpredictability. When we make contact via telephone, he’s not working the band through a new tune or scrambling to make his next gig; the saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator is enjoying the evening outside a Starbucks. “I’m in Salem, Connecticut, with my wife and daughter,” he explains in his gruff Brooklyn accent. “We’re on vacation for two days.”

Then, however, Liebman details his calendar, demonstrating that his friends’ stories are truer than they seem at the moment. He has just finished his annual saxophone master class at East Stroudsburg University, not far from his home in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. “Then in two weeks I’m with Steve Kuhn and Steve Swallow for a week at Birdland,” he adds. “I have to go through my music and see what tunes I’d like to play, then talk to them and see what they’d like to play, et cetera. A week later I’m going to start a tour with my quartet, so we’re rehearsing next week. There’s a chamber orchestra concert at the Manhattan School of Music in October, then a Quest reunion in February. Basically I’m busy for the whole next year.”


This is a man of tremendous dedication—backed by a formidable range of skills. Liebman is a soprano saxophonist nonpareil; excepting the late Steve Lacy, he’s the only major figure to choose the soprano as his main ax, and arguably its most distinctive stylist. In his 40-plus-year career he’s worked in a dizzying array of jazz styles, from bop and big band to avant-garde and fusion, leading a number of his own bands through these milieus. He’s an accomplished composer, winning a grant for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980 (and another for performance in 1991). Liebman has also made vital contributions to jazz education: He serves as artist in residence at the Manhattan School of Music, conducts lectures and master classes in several countries, is the founder and artistic director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) and has published dozens of pedagogical books, articles, charts and play-along packages. The esteem with which he’s held in the jazz industry is hard to overstate.

And yet, outside the field’s ivory tower, Liebman remains little recognized. Casual jazz fans primarily know him from his days in Miles Davis’ 1970s fusion bands, especially his work on the essential 1972 album On the Corner. His adventurous ’80s quartet, Quest, made some headway, though its greatest success was in Europe, and he has gotten some renewed attention in recent years with Saxophone Summit, his collaboration with Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane; still, on the whole, Liebman remains a musician’s musician.

This past year, however, has brought him into the limelight with a round of international acclaim. In December, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication presented Liebman with the Order of Arts and Letters medal, an honor he shares with the likes of T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His quartet album Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Jazzwerkstatt) received the 2010 German Jazz Critics Award. And in June, it was announced that Liebman will be a 2011 recipient of a prestigious Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts; born in 1946, he is the first baby boomer to be recognized. “Lieb’s never been in the public eye, but in the inner circle he’s probably as respected as any artist in the history of jazz,” says Mossblad. “The Jazz Masters Award is a nice indication that he is emerging to the outer circle, the general jazz world.”

Dave Liebman (photo: Matt Vashlishan)

Growing up a middle-class Jewish boy in 1950s Brooklyn, says Liebman, “it was sort of expected that you were either gonna play music or baseball.” At 10 he wanted to play saxophone, like the blazing soloists he’d heard on early rock ‘n’ roll records, but wasn’t allowed. First, his mother made him take two years of piano before he could choose another instrument; then, when he found a music school at 12 to try the sax, his teacher told him to start on clarinet. “Finally at 13 I got to the tenor saxophone, which was my plan all along,” he says. “But that was probably the most important musical decision of my life, to play piano and get acquainted with music as a whole.”


The school was another kind of turning point, too. Between class sessions, Liebman would watch the owners’ kids jam-his first taste of improvised jazz. It intrigued him. Slowly he began collecting jazz records, hits of the era like “Take Five” and “The Girl from Ipanema,” and started gigging: dance-band arrangements at the Catskills resorts, jam sessions in Manhattan’s jazz clubs. Then, when he heard John Coltrane at Birdland, it was settled; Liebman’s future lay in jazz. That course would require intense focus and determination: two attributes Liebman developed early in life, after a bout with polio that began when he was 3 years old. “[My strong will] probably came from overcompensating, which is a pretty standard M.O. for post-polio,” he says. “If you’re a type A personality, which I obviously am, and you get polio, you end up a type triple A!”

There was, however, no such thing as jazz education when he began college in 1964. Instead, Liebman majored in American history. Upon graduating, he became certified to work as a substitute teacher, freelancing as a saxophonist on the side. But when the fusion era blossomed shortly thereafter, Liebman found his breakthrough, getting hired as a fulltime member of the jazz-rock band Ten Wheel Drive. He left after a year and was working in Elvin Jones’ band when Miles Davis invited him to play on the 1972 recording sessions that became On the Corner. He became an official member of Miles’ group, staying with the trumpeter for a year and a half before founding the seven-piece collective Lookout Farm with keyboardist Richie Beirach and guitarist John Abercrombie.

Fusion, being the sound of the day, allowed Liebman to establish himself within the jazz community. But with Lookout Farm’s 1976 breakup he moved forward, first working with funk and soul-jazz saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, then blending jazz-rock liberally with postbop and avant-garde in his new quintet featuring guitarist John Scofield, drummer Adam Nussbaum, bassist Ron McClure and trumpeter Terumasa Hino. He then adopted an approach closer to straight-ahead postbop when, in 1980, he formed Quest with Beirach, McClure and drummer Billy Hart. Throughout these endeavors, though, Liebman continued freelance and side projects in various styles: hard bop with Jimmy Cobb or John McNeil, avant-garde with Bob Moses or Steve Swallow, tributes to Coltrane, vocalist accompaniment, duos and trios and big bands of all stripes. Quest was one thing, but Liebman’s artistic path was anything but straight-ahead.


It was through fusion that Liebman began playing soprano sax, out of necessity. “I got a soprano because the conductor of Ten Wheel Drive told me, ‘You gotta play soprano, baritone, alto, clarinet.’ You had to play everything,” he says. “And when I was with Miles it was kind of a practical thing, because the volume of the band was so loud that the soprano, being an octave higher than the tenor, was just easier to hear in all that barrage of noise.”

Once he formed Quest, Liebman perhaps for the only time in his career decided to narrow his scope by working exclusively with the soprano. “It was a decision based on artistic imperatives,” says Liebman. “It was important to get really good at something rather than OK at everything. I decided on the soprano because, number one, it felt natural to me. Number two, there was less historical precedent on it at that time. There was room to find myself, find a voice which could be mine.”

Eventually, after 15 years of self-cloistering, Liebman re-established himself on tenor and flutes, but soprano has remained his first priority as a player. He has indeed created a personal sound; on his most recent release, the big-band Live … As Always (MAMA/Summit), Liebman brandishes a lean legato that cuts through the orchestrations in medium-length phrases, with a surprisingly aggressive tone even on subtle arrangements like “Philippe Under the Green Bridge.” While he’s capable of great delicacy, it’s the saxophonist’s intensity which never wavers and brands every Liebman phrase as his own.


When Quest came to an end in 1990, Liebman built a quintet (Juris, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jamey Haddad) that could move in any of the musical directions he’d mastered, or even several at once. Today it is a quartet—Markowitz left in 2000, and Marko Marcinko replaced Haddad in 2002—but remains Liebman’s core unit; the members, including Markowitz, also play in his big bands, and have worked with him separately or in various combinations depending on the project. “Liebman’s a lot like Miles,” says Juris. “Ever changing, looking to raise the bar, and looking ahead instead of looking back. I think that’s what’s kept our musical relationship alive, always looking for new growth.”

The rest of this article appears in the December 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.