Even at its most accessible, Dave Liebman’s music can be quite challenging … and Earth does not capture it at its most accessible. The fourth and last installment of a 23-year project that the soprano saxophonist and composer has based on the classical quartet of elements, Earth is structured around intervals and the moods suggested by them. While it’s conceptually coherent, even accomplished, this does not translate into an enjoyable listen.
Liebman’s liner notes wave the banner for 20th-century classical music, in which dissonance and texture were major characters. That explains this music. Yet some of his textures don’t mix well with dissonance: namely, Matt Vashlishan’s wind synthesizer, whose shrill tone and pitch bends already seem designed to be off-putting. Apply it to the harsh intervals of “Volcano/Avalanche” and “Grand Canyon/Mt. Everest” and it becomes downright grating. Liebman’s soprano, which shares the front line with (and unisons) Vashlishan’s wind synth, adds some warmth but also doubles down on the piercing quality, as on “Concrete Jungle.”
That same tune, however, is a tour de force for the rhythm section of the Expansions quintet. Pianist Bobby Avey simultaneously plays acoustic and electric piano, turning in a high-drama solo on the former, while electric bassist Tony Marino and drummer Alex Ritz swing with great force. Better still is their percolating funk on “Galaxy”—a standout, because their energy presses Liebman, Vashlishan, and Avey into blazing improvisations. When they do a free groove on “Volcano/Avalanche,” however, it just intensifies the track’s ugly cacophony.
By and large, the successful tracks are the short, improvised solo interludes. Marino’s minor seconds and unstable pitch on “Bass Interlude” intrigue rather than repel; “Percussion/Flute Interlude,” with Ritz on kanjira and Liebman on wooden recorder, beckons to some primal instinct; Avey’s piano interlude is graceful and sublime. If Earth is a slog, it’s not for lack of talents involved.