Dave Liebman: Live At Smalls

The saxophonist's leap into nominally free playing is actually circumscribed by a post-bop ethos; but it's creative and enjoyable nonetheless


Since this live album was recorded in January 2022, saxophonist Dave Liebman has made a concerted effort to play in a free-jazz setting, breaking the bounds of composed music. “I have been recording since I was 16 years old. I have played everything . . . I would [now] like to spend this next stage of my artistic life focusing on playing free.” Not that such an approach is new to him, as he famously played free in a downtown loft with Dave Holland and Chick Corea in the late 1960s.

But that was then, and this is now. When faced with this gig at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC, he called together four musicians he had played with in varied contexts, but never together as an ensemble. The prospect of working with a new group of musicians was exciting, and served as a catalyst for fresh – and free – ideas to be explored on the bandstand.

The music that resulted might be unorthodox for a commercial release, for there are no true tunes, and its division into three parts is entirely arbitrary. It might also be deemed as demanding for the casual listener, but Liebman maintains that it doesn’t have to be. “There are no rules, which also means the listener’s experience can be extremely liberating.”

It is also a mistake to categorise it as freely improvised, for all five musicians very much stick to a semi-abstracted, post-bop ethos, even if they had no preconceived plans or scores from which to play.

This 72-minute set is best enjoyed straight through, as a visceral experience. It opens in almost cerebral fashion, with Peter Evans’ trumpet slowly gaining traction as the pace speeds up. Behind him, Tyshawn Sorey’s drums provide a solid platform on which to work, Leo Genovese reduced to high-powered comping duties. The recording mix means that John Hébert’s bass is barely heard other than in his solo outings, where he reveals himself to be a fluent and interesting performer.

The middle section opens warily but again is driven forward by Evans’ insistent staccato trumpet that blossoms out into an exuberant solo before Genovese gingerly steps forward with a chiming ripple of notes that gain stridency. Here, as elsewhere, Liebman’s contribution is oblique and thoughtful, each phrase paused before the next, floating gently above the accompaniment.

The section then disintegrates into contrasting and simultaneous individual interventions that float effortlessly in the musical void before a flurry of notes ushers in a final section that is the most abstract and dissolute of the entire piece. After a pause for breath, Liebman leads the musicians into a final ensemble explosion joined by Evans’ verbalised trumpet that sweeps everything before it.

This fine and ferocious set makes its demands on the listener, but cements Liebman’s standing as one of the most creative, and enjoyable, voices in modern jazz. What fun it is!

The Beginning; The Middle; The End (72.44)
Liebman (ss); Peter Evans (t); Leo Genovese (p); John Hébert (b); Tyshawn Sorey (d). Smalls Jazz Club, NYC, January 2022.
Cellar Music Group CMSLF006