Dave Liebman At Whelan’s – Review
There aren’t many heroes of the jazz world left. While we have a unique but small pool of contemporary talent, the figures who immortalised the genre over the last fifty to sixty years are slowly but surely becoming legend in every sense of the world. What a joy it is then, to be visited by a giant such as saxophonist David Liebman. The Brooklyn born musician came to the limelight in his time with fusion group Ten Wheel Drive before being hired by Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones for his own group. Liebman’s success grew from here, being picked up by Miles Davis and touring with Chick Corea in the mid to late seventies. Since then, he has established himself as one of the most prominent figures in contemporary jazz, playing with the likes of Expansions and teaching in the Manhattan school of jazz.
Tonight, the dimly lit main room of Whelan’s is packed out by a refreshingly large crowd. Some of this country’s most formidable performers of the genre are appearing here tonight as well, including bassist and director of Newark Music Centre Ronan Guilfoyle, his son Chris on guitar, Michael Buckley on sax and also Connecticut percussionist Gerry Hemingway. Performing a set of entirely improvised freeform music, we find ourselves in a truly unique state of suspense and excitement.
Liebman, Hemingway and Guilfoyle start the set off, and what a trio they are. Showcasing their vast wealth of technical talent takes a backseat to the feel of the music tonight, yet it still shines through blissfully. Liebman pierces the room with his intricate and unsettled lines, and the rhythm section respond in kind. Hemingway seems to find more and more unconventional ways of creating beautiful chaos with his drum kit, notably unscrewing his hi-hats and using his leg to manipulate the snare skin. All three seem possessed by this music that seems to say so much more than words can. At times it’s mysteriously pretty, at others it’s deeply uncomfortable. Not saying a word to the audience or amongst themselves, even these ‘songs’ have no breaks between them. It’s a constant wall of noise and dynamics.
After a rather intense first half and a short intermission, the band return to the stage and are now joined by Buckley and Chris Guilfoyle. Buckley starts things off with a powerful and conventional sounding jazz melody. The band approach it with a dark and dissonant vibe, with Liebman providing tense and morose countermelodies. Pizzicato shrills come from the guitar, which only adds to the conflicting mood in face of Buckley’s melodic choice of phrases. The juxtaposition of tones here is incredible, and yields an atmosphere like no other form of arranged music ever could.
While the music itself seems to dip a bit in quality at a certain point, it seems pointless to question. By now the majority of the audience are quite captivated, and those who weren’t have long since left. Guilfoyle senior now takes the reins somewhat in this musical dialogue and brings the energy to a new level with an insane shredding bass solo. Accompanied by an otherworldly glitch harmoniser on his instrument, the crowd are given a swift slap in the face by the monster performer. The rest of the band reengage and lock in for one final push of dissonant madness, leaving all with a lot to think about.
It’s quintessential to leave any preconceptions at the door for this type of show. It is an experience that cannot be compared to watching a pop or rock band in a nice outdoor venue playing the hits. This is true expression, and it isn’t trying to please anyone. It’s ugly, beautiful, chaotic and truly serene all at once. Liebman says that it’s his job to make people feel with his music. Not to feel good, not to feel bad, just to feel. With this much emotion and rawness, it would be an insult to say he and the band did not achieve this.