A powerful testament to the abilities of saxophonist Dave Liebman’s current quintet, Expansions Live was compiled from live recordings in three cities. It’s divided into “acoustic” and “electric” discs, but this categorization isn’t entirely accurate—Bobby Avey plays electric keys on the so-called acoustic disc’s spooky run through Hermeto Pascoal’s “Selim”—and anyway, the band’s basic approach doesn’t change all that much when a couple of its members plug in. The central goal remains the same: to stretch rhythms, melodies and chords as far as they can go.
Take, for example, the group’s spirited rendition of “All Blues.” It’s played at a brisk pace in a kind of chromatic shorthand, with Liebman and fellow reedman Matt Vashlishan (on alto saxophone here) competing on how out they can get while still, just barely, adhering to the outlines of the head. Avey’s piano solo starts off quiet and impressionistic, evoking swirly cloud formations, then builds to a crescendo of jagged McCoy Tyner-esque chords. His multidimensional playing, not just here but throughout the album, is a continual highlight reel.
Every band member has opportunities to shine, of course. Vashlishan blows jaunty clarinet on a reharmonized version of Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty.” Bassist Tony Marino and drummer Alex Ritz lock into a complex, time-signature-skipping groove for “Liberian Hummingbird.” And on “The Moors,” Liebman’s speedy, snake-charming solo gives us a sense of what the soprano sax might sound like if it were a traditional flamenco instrument. At times, the emphasis on limit-pushing can become a little tiresome, giving the music a sense of aloofness. But as a hard-swinging take on “Good Bait” amply demonstrates, the fun always returns.