For this listener, it was an exhilarating ride.
Whirlwind Recordings WR4817
David Liebman (soprano sax); Jeff Williams (drums)
Recorded Bar Room 432, Manhattan, New York 1991
Forget about drum and bass – this recording is all about drum and sax. Take two men, one soprano saxophone and one drum kit, and what you get is a mesmerising performance, completely improvised, with no planning, no preparation and no pre-prepared music. It could be a recipe for disaster, but in the hands of Dave Liebman and Jeff Williams, it’s an exhilarating musical journey literally into the unknown. Call it free-jazz; call it avant-garde, call it formless, but whatever name you use, you are hearing music being created in the moment. It’s the musical equivalent of walking a tightrope blindfolded.
For many people, the definition of jazz is improvisation, but in most cases, even an improvised jazz performance has some form of structure, designed to guide the ensemble, but on this record, everything is created on-the-fly, in two sets totalling more than forty minutes.
It goes without saying, that this type of playing requires musicians who are fully cognizant with each other’s playing, and who are in total harmony (both figuratively and literally). Liebman and Williams go back a long way. Dave Liebman (although the album cover uses the more formal form David) is well known for his association with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis (he played in Miles’s band in 1973-4). Jeff Williams has played with Paul Bley, Stan Getz and Joe Lovano.
When Liebman left Miles’s band in 1974, he formed the band Lookout Farm, with Jeff Williams, pianist Riche Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa. Percussionist Badal Roy (another Miles alumnus) later joined the line-up. The album, Lookout Farm, was released by ECM and billed as a Dave Liebman recording. It included guest musicians like Badal Roy (who played tabla), Don Alias and John Abercrombie. The music was a mix of acoustic and electric; east and west.
In 1976. Lookout Farm won the ‘Group Deserving of Wider Recognition’ category in Down Beat’s International Critics’ Poll. Ironically, the band broke up in the same year. Soon after, Liebman and Williams performed as a duo, supporting Gary Burton on tour. A recording of their duo performance is on Liebman’s 1979 album The Last Call. After the tour, Liebman and Williams went their own way, at least musically.
Fast forward to 1990, and Williams discovered a Manhattan bar, Bar Room 432. He persuaded the owners to start a jazz club, which ran for six nights a week. One of the gigs was a duo performance with Williams and Joe Lovano. Liebman heard about the gig and suggested he and Williams also perform together at the venue. This recording is that gig. Williams recorded the performance using what he describes as a, ‘Pretty good cassette recorder.’ After playing the tape once, Williams put it away and then forgot about it. It was only by discovering the cassette by chance many years later and sending a copy to Liebman (who raved about the performance), that Williams got the idea of releasing it to the public. The recording has been digitized, sonically tweaked and remastered by sound engineer Alex Bonney. I’d love to know more about how the gig was recorded, and what work Bonney did to make the performance sound so good – this is a million miles away
from any bootleg recording. The drums for example, are powerful but not over-powering, and the cymbals sound crisp and clear.
You would never guess that these two musicians hadn’t played together for fifteen years. The first set (simply called Set 1) begins as an uptempo number and it sounds as if the two musicians have been unleashed onto the stage. Both men play frenetically, and Liebman’s soprano squeals, shrieks, squawks and wails, but without ever sounding ugly. Williams keeps driving the music forward, and at the eight-minute mark, he plays volcanic drum solo, packed with explosive fills and cymbal smashes. The music then becomes less frenetic, as Liebman plays circular melodic riffs over Williams’ gentle tumbling drum pattern, and the music morphs into a ballad, before the first set ends.
Set 2 starts off slower-paced and more melodic than the first set, with Williams’ playing a series of light-touch strokes on cymbals and toms as Liebman’s soprano winds sweetly along. Around the seven-minute mark, the sound becomes more agitated as Liebman switches to playing a series of lightning trills and the drumming becomes more forceful and explosive. The effect is like a volcano that has been quietly emitting ash and steam before violently erupting. The playing becomes wild and exciting before slowly winding down in the final three minutes. To use yet another simile, it’s as if the listener has been sitting on a roller coaster slowly crawling its way towards the top, before plunging rapidly back to earth. For this listener, it was an exhilarating ride.