LIVE AT U OF T / VIVIAN: Split or Whole. MURLEY: YSBN. Open Spaces.2,3 LIEBMAN: Off a Bird. Small One.4 Nebula.2 Missing Persons.4 ELMAN-MERCER: And the Angels Sing.2 LOVANO: Blackwell’s Message / Dave Liebman, 1s-sax/2t-sax/3fl; Mike Murley, t-sax/4s-sax; Jim Vivian, bs; Terry Clarke, dm / No label name or number, available at iTunes (live: Toronto, January 6, 2017)
Veteran saxophonists Dave Liebman and Mike Murley have played together for more than a decade, and in fact Murley studied with Liebman at the Banff Jazz Workshop back in the 1980s, but this is only the second album by this specific quartet.
It is a stunner.
Drawing on a variety of big-name influences, both players have a powerhouse drive and attack and both have vivid musical imaginations. Imagine, if you will, a post-bop, more modern counterpart to Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and you have Liebman and Murley. The rhythm of their tunes is more conventional than their harmonic approach, sticking to a normal 4/4, but make no mistake, these are adventurous players. At times Murley will sound like Sonny Rollins, at other times a bit like Stan Getz (more so in his sparseness of note-choices than actual sound) while Liebman, particularly on soprano sax, channels Coltrane and a bit of Steve Lacy. What I found particularly interesting in this set was that neither of these exceptional reed players ever overblow or go so far out on a tangent that neither they nor their audience quite knows where they are, despite taking several risks. This is playing at its highest level.
The rhythm section is solid and dependable, with drummer Clarke taking a fine solo at the beginning of Off a Bird which, oddly enough, sounds more like a piece by Ornette Coleman than Parker, though it keeps to a recognizable harmonic base. Liebman is at his most abstract here, spitting out atonal lines with impunity while still leaving “space” in his solo. A nifty little quote from Bird’s Now’s the Time comes and goes so quickly that you might miss it. Bassist Jim Vivian is also quite busy here, contributing a splendid Charlie Haden-type solo in the middle, just before Murley comes roaring in on tenor sax.
On Small One, Murley joins Liebman on soprano sax, playing a lovely if rather abstract tune in harmony. In the improv section they take turns; the liner notes don’t say, but it sounds like Murley up first. I say this only because his playing tends to be somewhat more lyrical than his mentor-partner. Clarke tosses in a few really nice press rolls behind Liebman’s solo when he takes over the reins. Towards the end there is a nice passage where the rhythm changes and the duo plays some nifty interlocking phrases before reiterating the theme to the end.
Liebman plays both flute and tenor sax on Open Spaces. Oddly, his flute sounds more like an ocarina, but that’s fitting in the context of this quasi-Latin-sounding piece. His tenor playing has the same tone as his soprano, somewhat dry and “flat” like several of the hard-bop players of the 1950s and ‘60s. Vivian contributes a nice, dry bass solo, picking the strings cleanly as if it were a big guitar. Towards the end Liebman returns to his ocarina-like flute for the rideout. An out-of-tempo bowed bass solo opens Nebula, setting the tone for a particularly “spacey” performance. When the two saxists enter, they are playing sparsely in thirds, breaking up both line and rhythm as they proceed. Most of the composition and performance, in fact, consists of just these elements, with the music becoming even more spacey and the two reeds exchanging metaphoric takes on the sparse theme. Eventually they whimper like two wounded space birds from Alpha Centauri.
Next we get the one old-time standard on this set, Ziggy Elman’s And the Angels Sing which was the vocal version of his previously-recorded Frahlich in Swing. It gives the listener a chance to hear and understand what these two great artists can do with a song, in material that almost everyone knows. Both men are on tenor here, and it sounds to me as if that’s Liebman up first, playing a particularly adventurous solo before Murley comes in with his quasi-Getz sound and ideas. Missing Persons starts out with an out-of-tempo a cappella passage by the two saxists at a medium slow tempo, again channeling Ornette somewhat. Audience applause comes immediately after, followed by a rumbling drum solo which introduces Joe Lovano’s Blackwell’s Message. This, too, turns into a somewhat abstract performance, particularly in Liebman’s twisting, pretzel-shaped solo. Murley does his level best to catch up, though, and eventually they come together, again in thirds, to wrap the set up.
Really, really nice music from start to finish.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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