At 66, RATHER than sitting back, David Liebman is busier than ever. When we speak, the Pennsylvania-based master saxophonist is still getting over the jet lag of a Scandinavian trip, and is about to fly to Scotland to play a three-stop tour with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra this weekend.
In between the Scandinavian and Scottish visits, on Friday he played with his current young band in Greenwich Village, on Saturday he was jamming with colleagues “more of my generation” in a local bar near his home in the Pocono Mountains, while on Sunday it was back to his native Brooklyn for a relatively rare solo concert, doubtless including the fine suspension of the theme from his Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner, which remains a touchstone for his solo performances.
Highly regarded by his fellow musicians – SNJO leader and fellow sax-player Tommy Smith describes him as “the world’s foremost saxophonist and improviser, creating music with power, passion and incredible, focused energy”, Liebman last played in Scotland in 2001, again with the SNJO, taking the lead in Smith’s composition Beauty and the Beast, and the admiration seems mutual. “Tommy’s one of my favourite musicians,” says Liebman, “and I remember the good times we had with the orchestra.”
The collaboration features compositions and covers by Liebman from various stages of his career, largely selected by Smith. The tour’s “Day & Night” label references Liebman’s mutation of the classic Night and Day. The playlist also includes Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, Port Lligat, inspired by a period Liebman spent in the Catalonian port associated with Salvador Dali, and Enfin – “at last” – which he wrote to celebrate the election of Barack Obama.
The inclusion of John Coltrane’s Naima has a special resonance: first hearing ’Trane in his mid-teens was, recalls Liebman, “my epiphany. I was 15 years old, at Birdland in New York, and that night it was the Bill Evans Trio and the Coltrane Quintet, with Eric Dolphy, and I was just mesmerised.”
Liebman was already playing sax, but Coltrane’s hurricane of notes stunned the under-age club-goer: “I said to myself, ‘This can’t be the same instrument that I play.’ I didn’t know it that night, but it marked the beginning of my serious interest in pursuing that music.”
Before too long, Liebman was filling Coltrane’s shoes as saxophonist with Elvin Jones – “quite an experience, intimidating to say the least” – before moving on to join Miles Davis’s electric band. His emergence as a player from the creative crucible of the late 1960s is reflected by the diversity of his career, which has taken in everything from straight ahead jazz and fusion to a recording of Puccini arias. “In the late 1960s into the 1970s, stylistically, everything was possible,” he says. “I liked rock’n’roll, 20th-century classical music and world music and, of course, I was a Coltrane fanatic.
“I’ve continued to pursue those various styles and idioms, and over 30 to 40 years, you get better, because your ear is better, your sense of taste is more mature and your tools are more sophisticated.”
A respected jazz educator as well as a performer, he has always stressed the importance of the emerging player finding his or her own voice. Liebman’s singular voice is a singing soprano sax tone that can whip up intense extended improvisations. Does the big band format put constraints on that?
“You might not have the same amount of time you would in a small group, but the same parameters work. The challenge is to say what you have to say in less time, and as an artist you should be able to do that.”
• The SNJO’s Day & Night with David Liebman is at the Younger Hall, St Andrews, tomorrow, the Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, on Saturday, and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday, see www.snjo.co.uk