What makes a wordless music ‘honest?’ How do we know it so clearly when we hear it? Dave Liebman, John Hébert, Ben Monder: these men have a sound that is theirs and theirs alone. Dave has recorded on more than 500 albums. And still, every time, in the studio, the dissolution of the ego. The doubt, the questions, the wait for inspiration. The moments when it feels exactly right. “This is me.”
Dave Liebman has told his story many times. A Brooklyn childhood centered around the ravages of polio. The early piano lessons, the dutiful studying of clarinet, and then the thunderclap of hearing John Coltrane at Birdland in 1962. Boom. Another world. The early years in Manhattan playing all day in a rented loft. Getting the call to join Elvin Jones’ band and then the call to work with Miles Davis himself. A career. Building an identity as a composer, as a band leader, as a side man, as a teacher. So much music. So many chances to refine your sound, your vocabulary, your concept.
“Stella by Starlight,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”: these songs are totemic. The forms, dissolved into the collective unconscious of the musicians, they run through their fingers like prayer beads. The myriad permutations a song makes over the decades. Here’s where Miles added an intro, here’s McCoy’s chord changes… And these songs connect us not just to the history of the music but to each other. Somewhere in the DNA of these songs is the musician’s whole history with it. How and where they learned it, the thousands of times they’ve played it in sessions and on the bandstand. I like to picture a ten year old Ben Monder picking out “Bye Bye Blackbird” while Dave is hitting with Miles one neighborhood over.
There’s a macho posturing that has a long history in this music. It even seeps into the language of the music. ‘Cutting session,’ ‘Burning,’ ‘Axe,’ ‘Killing,’ even ‘Bad motherfucker’ (in reference to someone who’s really good, as in Dave Liebman is a bad motherfucker). Maybe that’s because the essence of this music is so damn vulnerable. Good musicians keep chipping away at the veneer that keeps them separated from us. Showing the world who they are. And when they were. This music freezes a moment. It could only have been created on February 12, 2022. You couldn’t reconstruct it with a thousand days in the studio. It’s an exercise in exposure, even for someone who has had as vaulted a career as Dave Liebman. When you are doing it right, there’s nowhere to hide. “Here we are today, I am bringing everything I can to this moment. This is me.”
I asked Dave about what’s needed in order to communicate something profound in this music. How do we create something collectively that has meaning. Dave doesn’t like to put too many words on it. “You need trust and honesty on the bandstand. Once you name something, you already put up a barrier. The music has Shamanistic power about it, but we don’t have to get into it, what key do you want to play in?”
– Elan Mehler