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David Liebman: Conversation

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The bland title Conversation is a little evasive, but the cover image, a painting of what appears to be food on a tabletop, gets right at it. This is the kind of warm, satisfied conversation men have on full bellies. At their best, the Dave Liebman Group delivers an insistent, expansive sound, tight interplay and lyricism. What they lack, however, is any sense of urgency.

Far too often, as on the pastoral “Snow Day” or the painfully obvious “Cosmos,” the band settles for cute unison arrangements and an impressionist dreaminess that tends to downshift into sleepiness. The new drummer, Marko Marcinko, is an active, rockish player, but his drumming, spread wide in the mix, tends to level the music rather than spur it. Liebman occasionally includes fusion or New Age elements, like his keening, overdubbed Indian flute on “Anubis,” which may help differentiate the music-but not in a good way. Only Liebman’s sax work really stands out from the genial surroundings. His solos have a little too much bite and grace to settle too comfortably into the music. A tune with a title like “Tickle Bath” needs a good loud soprano screech, even if it takes the composer to deliver it.

On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing casual about Liebman’s impressive solo tenor excursion Colors. Liebman conceived this recital as a companion piece to a previous solo recording, The Tree (Soul Note), and as with that one, Liebman again looks to a central concept to help structure his music. Liebman cycles twice through a series of six colors that serve as titles for each piece as well as help Liebman define his improvisations-at least in a loose, associative way. “Red” begins with Liebman’s jumpy sax skipping abruptly across wide intervals, and this leads into the smears and scraped-bare tonal experiments of “White” and “Black.” This abstraction gives way to the melancholy melodicism of “Gray” and the warped long tones of “Blue” before concluding with bursts of wrinkled sound on “Yellow.” Liebman wastes no time here, keeping most pieces to about three or four minutes in length, and he comes out of it with a set of highly focused, distilled improvisations.