Liebowitz & Flick’s Surprisingly Brilliant CD

Liebowitz001

LIEBOWITZ-FLICK: Moon. Portrait. Visions. Hummingbird. Jasmine. Sehnsucht. Crossed Lines. Reflections. FLICK: Malita-Malika (for Johanna). Medley: BAUER: Marionette/ DUBIN-WARREN: September in the Rain. RAYE-DePAUL: You Don’t Know What Love Is / Carol Liebowitz, pno/voc; Birgitta Flick, t-sax / Leo Records LR 838

Here’s a very unusual jazz CD. When I first saw the cover and looked at the titles of the tunes being played, I said to myself, Oh, no! Not another mooshy-gooshy “ambient jazz” CD! I get so many of them as proposed review material, and every time I put them on and hear that soft, tinkly piano and/or those whispery, echt-sexy vocals, I just want to take the CD off my player and smash it. (I do NOT respond to mushy music of any genre.)

But this one took me by surprise. Liebowitz and Flick, who originally met in Berlin in 2010 and again in New York in 2014, are free jazz artists. Their music veers in and out of tonality, constantly shifts rhythms, uses tone clusters and is, for the most part, improvised on one or two short licks rather than tunes in the conventional sense. And they are BRILLIANT. They follow each other in and out of musical nooks and crannies, corners and crevices, sometimes a bit far out but for the most part stunningly together in their musical train of thought.

Moreover, in certain works, such as Portrait, their music is less harmonically complex and uses tonality more consistently. In the liner notes, Flick and Liebowitz are quoted as saying, “Whether it is a spontaneous free improvisation or a standard that dates back nearly a century – to us it’s all one: we’re guided by the spirit and the intuition of the very moment the music comes into being. A continuity of feeling and inspiration, each time anew.”

Interestingly, Flick’s method of playing the tenor saxophone uses a dry, vibratoless tone, and possibly a hard reed, which gives her perfect control high up in the instrument’s range. Most of the time, it sounds much more like an alto sax than a tenor, even more so than Lester Young’s dry, vibratoless timbre. (My late jazz friend, Frank Powers, one told me that he thought that Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet was playing a soprano sax because of the same thing, the dry tone—Desmond called it “dry martinis”—and light, airy sound.) Due to their open-mindedness in alternating between tonality and atonality, the duo’s music has a more varied sound and feeling than those musicians who remain adamantly in atonal realms. And the listener is kept tuned in because he or she really doesn’t know what to expect, which makes the listening experience an adventure as well as stimulating. It is both a sensual and an intellectual experience. In a strange way, they almost make you feel as if you were looking into their souls or psyches as they play.

A detailed description of their playing would take more space than I have on this blog, but as a general description they alternate between elegant, curved musical lines and edgy ones. In a piece like Malita-Malika, they keep the music pared down to basics, almost moving together one note or phrase at a time, and in Hummingbird they actually do simulate the flutter of wings while exploring swirling, bitonal lines, feeding each other motifs, sometimes together and at other times separately. Their sense of unity is so complete that you’d think they had been playing together for years rather than sporadically.

I was particularly surprised to see Billy Bauer’s Marionette on the program. For those who don’t know, this was one of the tracks recorded in the very first free jazz session headed by pianist Lennie Tristano, back in 1949, and it is oddly juxtaposed with the old Dubin-Warren classic September in the Rain. The two don’t really go together, but somehow the duo make it work despite Liebowitz’ whispery vocal. The same may also be said for You Don’t Know What Love Is, although Flick’s wonderful a cappella saxophone intro holds one’s attention, and here Liebowitz’ vocal sounds hipper and less ballad-y. The saxist’s fills behind Liebowitz are also very effective in this number, and in the middle section they explore the music instrumentally.

Overall, this is a marvelous recording, and I urge you to listen to it.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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