Dave Liebman on Jazz Epiphanies, the '60s Loft Scene and Being So Incredbily Productive at Age 76
I can't remember when I first heard Dave Liebman on record. I have a vague memory of Ten Wheel Drive, the ten-piece rock band with horns, fronted by the dynamic, Polish-born, Joplin-esque lead singer Genya Ravan, that rivaled other rock horn bands on the scene at the time like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Liebman played on Ten Year Drive's1970 album, Brief Replies, and toured with the band most of that year. Two years later -- following an apprenticeship with drummer-bandleader Elvin Jones that yielded a trio of potent Blue Note recordings in Genesis, Merry-Go-Round and Live at the Lighthouse -- he appeared on Miles Davis' edgy 1972 landmark, On the Corner, the album that may have single-handedly launched the punk-funk movement. Liebman would later reprise that bubbling cauldron of electro-funk cacophony TWICE -- first on 2007's Back on the Corner (featuring guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Anthony Jackson on board), and again on 2019's On the Corner Live! (with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Chester Thompson).
I must confess, I didn't get hip to On the Corner until much later, when former Richard Hell & The Voidoids guitarist and Lou Reed sideman Robert Quine introduced me to the twisted charm of that Miles album in the early '80s. Around the same time that Miles had unleashed guitarist Pete Cosey on a pair of subversive live albums from 1975, Agharta and Pangea (again, which Quine introduced me to), I became intimately acquainted with Liebman's 1975 album Sweet Hands. An adventurous East-meets-West project for John Snyder's upstart Horizon label (a subsidiary of powerhouse A&M Records), it featured electric bassist Frank Tusa, guitarist John Abercrombie, keyboardist Richie Beirach, drummer Jeff Williams and tabla ace Badal Roy. Their spacey, Indian-influenced version of George Harrison's "Within You Without You" particularly appealed to my 21-year-old pot-induced hippie sensibilities at that time. I also dug Liebman's jacked-up funk-fusion outing from 1978, Light'n Up Please!, with fellow saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis of James Brown fame.
After moving to New York City in 1980 and shortly thereafter getting exposed to On the Corner, Get Up With It and the live Dark Magus, all of which Liebman appeared on, I began backtracking to check out his work with Elvin while also catching Quest gigs at Visiones on the corner of W. 3rd Street and MacDougal in the heart of Greenwich Village. It is there that I truly came under Liebman's spell. Today, 50 years after his tenure with Miles Davis, Dave Liebman is not only an esteemed recording artist, educator and NEA Jazz Master (named in 2011), he has also appeared on an amazing 500+ recordings. And at age 76, he's as prolific as ever, appearing on a wide range of recordings since 2022, from Trust and Honesty (a drumless trio outing with guitarist Ben Monder and bassist John Hébert for Newvelle Records), the live New Now (a trio project with percussionist Adam Rudolph and drummer Tyshawn Sorey recorded at NYC’s Jazz Gallery for Meta Records/yeros7) and the upcoming Dave Liebman: Live at Smalls (a 75-minute set of free improv from the NEA Jazz Master alongside trumpeter Peter Evans and a rhythm section comprised of pianist Leo Genovese, bassist Hébert and drummer Sorey for the Cellar Music Group label).
The following is a composite of three separate interviews I did with Dave Liebman -- the first in 2019 at his former and longtime home in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for my book Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker (Backbeat Books), the second at the Upper East Side Manhattan highrise he later moved into for the May 2020 issue of Downbeat magazine, and a third on the phone from his NYC home for a recent story in Jazziz.
Describe the New York City loft scene that you came out of in the late '60s.
Well, we were all 22, 23 years old and what we were doing was laying the groundwork for what was going to be the featured music of the ‘70s, which of course is fusion and a certain amount of free jazz. (Bassist) Gene Perla had a loft on Fulton Street near the Fish Market that he shared with (drummer-percussionist) Don Alias. So they were hosting sessions over there. And then (drummer) Bob Moses had a loft with his wife Theresa on Bleecker and Bowery, which was another stop-off point for sessions. (Guitarist) John Abercrombie also had a place with (then saxophonist) Marc Copland on Warren Street. And I had a loft at 138 W. 19th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in what was formerly a shirt tie dye factory. I moved in first on the top floor, then Dave Holland and his wife Claire and daughter Louise moved into the second floor, and later Chick Corea took the ground floor. And my place on the third floor became ground zero for a lot of sessions that took place in that building.
Obviously, these loft space were not zoned for living.
No, it was illegal to live there. So if the fire department came up, which they did, they had to get pay-offs from the landlord or they'd issue a citation. It was, you know, chancey living. And you lived bare bones. You bought a refrigerator, a hot plate. These textile shirt factories had a toilet for workers but they didn’t have a shower, they didn’t have a kitchen. I don't think they left me any appliances. I mean, I barely had plumbing. It was typical of loft living at the time. But the point was to be able to play all the time.
How much did this loft cost you at the time?
Well, if you wanted to get in you had to play the game, which meant paying what they called "key money." Like, “I’m charging you whatever I can for the privilege of coming into the place.” It was like a downpayment, supposedly going toward making improvements on the place. Some landlords really improved their places, some ripped you off. You know, it was all over the map, like the Wild West. I think I paid $1,200 or $1,500 in key money for my place and then my rent was a $125-$150 a month. It was 1200 square feet…one straight room, with a little space off to the side for a mattress. I had been living up in the Woodstock area just prior to this and when I came back to town around Thanksgiving of '68 I knew I had to live in a loft. I had already been hanging out with Bob Moses and Jim Pepper in their lofts and I saw that this was, for me, the way to learn. Because I didn't get any formal training, the way to learn was to play a lot. And I realized that if I played a lot, I'd have a chance to get good at it.
Was your loft located in the plant district?
It was a little below that. The plant district starts around mid 20s. My place was on 19th Street in what had been an industrial area. Nobody was living there. As I mentioned, my building had been a tie dye factory and on the first day that I moved in there I noticed that they left a lot of the shirts on the floor. So I just took out a staple gun and put them all up on the ceiling, in the fashion of the day. After all, it was 1969. And that was the beginning of the jams at my loft as well as the beginning of my relationship with a lot of people who would become lifelong friends, like Randy Brecker, Richie Beirach and many others. And this loft scene was a 24-hour situation. Cats would call up from the street and I just threw the key down, they'd come up and we'd jam. I had a piano and a set of drums, vibes, bass. You could play pretty much at any hour. We would play all night, break to go down to Chinatown to get something to eat, usually at Wo-Hop on 17 Mott Street, and then come back and play some more. In those days you could eat cheap. You just went to a deli and got a sandwich or rice dishes. We were all macrobiotic for a while. As I was telling you, in this building in the other lofts was Dave Holland and Chick Corea, so there were three of us, baking bread every night, being very strictly macrobiotic for a year, year and a half. You know, there was also LSD and mescaline and Vivekananda and Hari Krishna going on. I mean, we went through everything. The loft scene was like a laboratory.
Participants at the jams at Liebman's loft at 138 W. 19th Street
Describe the kind of music you played at these loft jams.
It was free. We didn’t play standards, we were more going for a Coltrane Ascension vibe, with six or seven sax players blowing at the same time with a rhythm section. We didn’t play tunes until (bassist) Lannie Fields came in one day with this record Speak No Evil (Wayne Shorter's third Blue Note album, released June 1966). He put it on and I said, “Shit, man! These kind of tunes? What’s going on here? What have we been doing? We’ve been Albert Ayler-ing out while Herbie and Wayne are writing masterpiece tunes with harmony.” So we kind of all spent that night transcribing all the heads on that record -- “Witch Hunt,” “Infant Eyes,” "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" and all that stuff. And we kind of collectively…without talking about it…we kind of acknowledged, to a certain degree, that we kind of skipped a chapter here and that the time would come that we will have to pay some dues to the first level of things, which is playing on changes. And sure enough, at that point Mike and Randy Brecker went with Horace Silver, I went with Elvin Jones, Richie Beirach went out with Stan Getz. And we got an education in that style of playing. You know, we didn’t hook up with the Art Ensemble of Chicago type gigs. When our careers started, which is really ’71-’72-’73, when we were out of the loft, truth is we were playing straight ahead because that’s where the work was: Horace, Elvin, Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis...those kind of situations where we really had to play on changes.
You grew up in Brooklyn. What part?
Flatbush. 14th Street and Avenue J, between Ocean Parkway and Ocean Avenue. Jewish-Italian neighborhood, straight down the line 50-50. My parents were school teachers. My father was an assistant principal, my mother was a teacher. And our lives were all about education.
They nurtured you as a musician early on?
My mother threw it right down at about 9 years old. She said, “You’re going to play an instrument, what instrument do you want to play?” And even then I knew to say saxophone, because I had already been listening to rock ’n’ roll by the mid ‘50s and I was familiar with the tenor sax being the main soloing instrument. This was before the Beatles, before guitar became so dominant.
Junior Walker and that type of thing?
Yeah, Junior Walker, King Curtis. “Honky Tonk” with Bill Doggett (Clifford Scott played sax on that 1956 hit). “Walking with Mr. Lee” (Lee Allen’s 1958 hit). Also Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” (Gil Bernal played tenor) or “Ramrod” (Plas Johnson played tenor).
Who did Little Richard have in his band playing the tenor solos?
Maybe King Curtis? I don’t know. (Lee Allen played tenor solo on 1956 hit “Long Tall Sally”). The Coasters had King Curtis (on 1958’s “Yakety Yak”). Anyway, my mother said, “You can take any instrument you want but you must take two years of piano first." Smartest move of all time. Because for any musician, you gotta know the piano. It’s just a necessity. By the time I was 11 years old, I could read. Not jazz, but I could play the pre-requisite simple stuff. And by the time I got to 12, right before my bar mitzvah, I said, “OK ma, I did what you want. I played piano for two years.” And she said, “OK, we’ll get you a horn.” So I got my first tenor saxophone, a gold, shiny instrument. I loved to look at that saxophone, it was so beautiful looking. So that was the beginning. I played “Lady Is a Tramp” at my bar mitzvah, which was the first time I ever played in public. And by the time I was 13, I started doing club dates on the weekends. I had three tuxedoes, man, and I was working. I had a band called The Impromptu Quartet that worked the Catskills and all the places. From age 13 to about19 years old, that’s where you could find me on weekends.
Did you go through the whole discipline of playing clarinet first before you began on saxophone?
That was the next thing. After I did piano for two years I went to this little music school in the neighborhood, Bromley Studios. And the teacher says, “You gotta play clarinet for a year.” And I hated clarinet. So I was forced to do it for a year. But that was a myth based on studio work and club dates, that a saxophone player had to also play flute and clarinet. That was expected in some places and it was part of the regiment. I was not even looking to be a professional musician at 16 years old but if you were going to play the saxophone you had to play the clarinet first because it was a much more difficult instrument to play. The fingering is different every octave, basically. So you’re obligated to do that, and the thinking was when you move on to saxophone it will be easier. But I think it was a big myth. Somebody spread this rumor. Because I can’t see too many people loving the clarinet. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Clarinet was dated, in my eyes, because of Benny Goodman. It was dated historically and musically, and I certainly didn’t want to be a part of that. So there was nothing to attract you to it, except your teacher saying you had to do it.
But ultimately, your time at Bromley Studios was a valuable experience.
Yes. I used to spend Saturday mornings at Bromley Studios -- 9 o’clock was the saxophone lesson, 10 o’clock was the piano lesson, and then at 11 o'clock it was ensemble playing. That’s where we learned to play club dates. There was a book called Combo Works and it had all the voicings so you could play three saxophone arrangements. We all had it. And we were serious. I mean, we did bar mitzvahs and weddings where I’m up there calling Aunt Tillie up to sing the "Anniversary Waltz." We’re teenagers but we knew how to do it all -- the singing and announcing stuff and waiting for the cake to be cut and all this stuff. And, of course, in those days, musically, the club date situation was all standards. We played “Tea for Two.” I mean, I learned how to play “High How the Moon” at 13 years old, long before I knew Bird had recorded it.
But music was actually a kind of sidetrack for you at the time.
Man, I was going to be a doctor! Because of my leg [he had polio at age three in 1949, six years before Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine virtually eradicated the disease] I had a lot of interaction with doctors. And one thing that impressed me as a kid was when a doctor walked in the room everybody was quiet. And my mother talked about them like they were
god. I went to Bellevue for rehabilitation once a month and my mother would say, "Go see the doctor, be good now, don’t do anything weird, these guys are going to help you out." And my therapy was pulling sand bags with my leg and shit…so outdated. But my life basically circulated around polio, and there were lasting effects.
Liebman behind Chief Supreme Court Justice William Douglas as Brooklyn banner boy for March of Dimes, early 1950s
So it was always, “When’s the next operation gonna be? How long do I have to wear this brace?” So the music was a secondary thing at that time, and I did want to be a doctor. You know, when you’re a kid you get interested in things, but usually it's a passing fad. But the doctor thing came about because I was exposed to them so much, and I became obsessive about it. I was reading about it all the time. I had a book on standard surgery. I still have a copy of it. I knew more about anesthesia than the doctors knew. The polio kind of framed my life, not because I was inactive…I played ball, I was always pretty active, as much as I could be. But there was always this thing of, “What’s gonna happen next?” Handicap was a dirty word in those days. It didn’t elicit sympathy. That kind of mythological thing…what does that mean? Did I have three arms? So that was always the thing: When are you going to have the next operation? And since my parents were both school teachers, they didn’t make much money. Until the strike with Albert Shanker in ’68 [Shanker was president of the United Federation of Teachers from 1964 to 1985], teachers were paid less than any other civil servant. So money was always tight. We had enough, but during the summers my father worked as head counselor at a camp, where my mother would do arts and crafts. And when it became clear that I was interested in jazz and investing time in getting good at it, it was the typical parents worry of, “Do you know what you’re doing? What are you gonna do when we’re not here? What’s a gig? How do you make money from this?” You know…the routine. You had to explain it to them.
So your parents must've been kvelling in the audience when they saw you play with Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (on March 30, 1974, documented on the live double album, Dark Magus).
Oh, my mother…when I played the flute! She loved the flute. And after the show my mother said…typical Jewish glass half-empty…she said, “Well, you must be good because you’re at Carnegie Hall.” But my father had a very interesting statement. He said to me, "How do you guys do it? Your eyes are closed, there’s no music in front of you, you don’t seem to talk to each other. How do you do it?" And you know what? That naive, clear statement of fact was true: How do we do it? I never thought of it like that until he made that statement: “I don’t know how you guys do it. It’s like miracles.” My parents liked classical music. My father had 78s…Tchaikovsky, Brahms. And, of course, as I got more notoriety they were very proud of me and all that stuff. And when I got the NEA Award I said at the presentation, “A few blocks from here, that’s where my mother finally proved that I was OK.”
You didn't become a doctor, but you ended up majoring in history at NYU. And then you traveled to Europe before settling into your loft. What was that about?
My parents believed in travel so in 1967, when I was 21 years old, they gave me a thousand dollars and the book "Europe on Five Dollars a Day" along with a ticket to London and back out of London two months later. The first night I was there, I called the bassist Cameron Brown, who was there. He had been living in Europe and he gave me a couple of phone numbers. That's how I got with John Surman and Dave Holland. And in the '60s, a strange musician from New York, you were not taken for granted. You had some kind of patois about you. So I went down to hear the guys play at Ronnie Scott's and I ended up sitting in with them there. John and Dave lived together at the time and they offered me a place to stay rather than checking into a hotel. And I stayed three weeks. Then I went to check out the rest of Europe. You know, I just took the horn and a duffel bag and sat in here and there along the way. Then I came back to New York and did one more year of college. I had a year to go before I left.
Going back a bit, you had mentioned that seeing John Coltrane live when you were just 15 years old was a major epiphany.
Well, that's the word I used to describe it, exactly that word. Because it wasn't like I knew anything that was going on at the time. I didn't even know who Coltrane was. But it was transforming. The honesty and the power, it made me speechless that night, for sure, and for the next 70 years...coming to the same conclusion, which is how strongly that night affected me. Of course, I saw Trane several times after that. He played New York two or three times a year and I'd go see him as much as I could. I remember getting the subway back to Brooklyn at three in the morning after seeing Trane. But that first time was in February of ’62. It was at Birdland, opposite Bill Evans. Eric Dolphy was in Trane's band at the time. And I had no idea who any of them were. I was there on a date with my girlfriend Julie. It was noisy Saturday night. First Bill Evans played, and I didn't know who he was at all. And then these guys walkon stage, five of them, and they start playing. And my first thought hearing Trane was, “That’s the same instrument that I play at home? You can’t tell me that’s the same tenor saxophone I have on my bed that I practice one hour a day with. I gotta know all about this." You know, it was a shock to me. And then they go into "My Favorite Things" and my girlfriend says, "Oh, that's from The Sound of Music," and I go, "These guys don't play stuff like that. That's some corny shit!" And sure enough, it was "My Favorite Things," which they played every night that I saw them. I have a great Elvin story that I tell about "My Favorite Things." We were together in the '80s, I did a couple of tours, so I had time to really talk to him. Also, I wasn't so intimidated by him then as I was in the '70s when I first played in his band. So one day we're in the train, sipping some wine and I say, "Elvin, I have a question to ask, which is kind of a silly question, but bear with me." And he says, "Whatever you need, Lieb?"...he was always so nice to me. So I say, "How many times did you play 'My Favorite Things' with Trane? What I mean is, how did you play it every night and keep it fresh?" And he goes, "Well, you know, that was quite a working band. We played 40 to 45 weeks a year, sometimes three sets, sometimes four sets a night. And we did play it every night. In fact, sometimes we played it twice a night. You tell me how many times?" So I did a quick analysis -- 1200, 1500 times. Then he leaned forward, he got right in my face and he goes, "I don't know how many goddamn times we played it, but I'll tell you one thing: we played it like there was no tomorrow. You understand what I'm saying?" And I said, "Yes, sir!"
So you not only had your Trane epiphany that night at Birdland in '62, you also saw Eric Dolphy for the first time.
Yes. In fact, Eric Dolphy, who I didn't know at all, sounded more logical to me for musical reasons. He still played eighth notes and he still played recognizable phraseology. He still had that jazz articulation. Trane was way past that at that time. I remember telling my girlfriend, "I really like the alto player." I'm a novice, OK? I don't know what's weird and what's not weird. But I'm just like, "That sounds a little more recognizable to me." But that night hearing Trane was my awakening that there's something going on in his music, in his playing, and even more philosophically than musically. It was that thing of what you see is only a little bit of what there is. If you look behind the curtain, there's a lot more going on. Because after digesting Trane for a couple of years in the '60s, it was way beyond just the notes, as we know. Because he went a whole other direction, he brought the spiritual thing into his music. He's really responsible for putting it on the map as a thing that's OK to do through pieces like "Dear Lord," "To Be," "Ogunde," "Peace on Earth." Even the titles dealt with larger issues. So he made you think about stuff that wasn't in front of you, that you might've never thought about. And now you had a duty to go and seek out anybody who was doing that. And that could be Indian music, that could be Tibetan chanting, that could be music from Ghana, tuva singers, gamelan music. And that's what Trane was talking about. He was in the spirit thing. He passed the music. By the time he's done A Love Supreme, it was already a vehicle for him to go further on his own. So if you were a young musician in New York at that time, you had to deal with it. You couldn't avoid it. Why would you? But you had to deal with the immensity of Coltrane's oeuvre, his work and his language. So we were all enamored by that and really affected by it. Bob Berg was like the 'Prestige Trane guy' when he played with Cedar Walton and Eastern Rebellion. Michael Brecker was into Impressions Trane. First eight bars of "Impressions" is Michael's life. I was into Pharoah Sanders. I liked the screaming shit. And Steve Grossman was all about "Afro Blue," "The Promise," that Live at Birdland stage in Trane's career. Each one of us took a little toe of Coltrane's foot and made it into his life. But Michael, he took that and he ran with the ball with that kind of phrasing. And I was more with the free stuff. And Grossman and I had that Elvin connection together. And remember, in those days there weren't like 90,000 saxophone players like we have now. It was a much smaller circle. You knew everybody in your age group. Plus, you knew the elders like Benny Golson and Charles Lloyd because you went to see these guys. In some cases, you hung out with them, studied with them, like I did with Charles Lloyd. But Trane was everywhere. And the immensity of what he did was on everybody's mind. And when Michael and I did get back together as cohorts in the Sax Summit decades later, it was clear that we were going to play late Coltrane.
You saw Trane multiple times?
Maybe 16-20 times -- Village Vanguard, Half Note, Five Spot, Birdland, Village Gate. At Birdland, Pee Wee Marquette would meet you and say, "Young man, you're here to sit in the peanut gallery." It was $5 admission and a dollar for a Coke. And I'd say, "You know, in Brooklyn a Coke is only five cents." And he'd say, "Well, you ain't in Brooklyn anymore." So that first time seeing Trane at Birdland, I’m 15 and I’m thinking, “I don’t know what they’re doing but whatever it is, I want some of it.” I couldn’t recognize it, but I could feel it. I mean, these guys were really dealing and really meaning it. And it was all the things that kids like — fast, loud, intensely energized. Like rock guitar. But instead of rock guitar it was tenor and soprano saxophone. And I wasn’t extremely talented at the time but I was energetic and organized. I had a pretty good sense of rhythm but I wasn't developed to the point where I could walk into a room, hear somebody whistle something and then instantly play it back. It wasn’t like that. But after that first encounter with Trane in '62, from then on until he passed, any time he played in town I was there on the weekend. You know, I had to go to school so I couldn't go during the week. But you were there on the weekend and you heard the same set, the same things. Of course, because I got with Elvin later, I was able to get a little bit more than the normal education and stories about Trane. But initally, we learned from the records, really, and from the rare times when you could go into the club and see him. We didn’t have any teachers for that stuff. There were no Real Books or YouTube instructional videos then. So I knew I had to play a lot to get good at it. And that’s why I went into the loft situation. The first time I saw Bob Moses at a sweet 16 party, he said, “Oh, I live in the Bowery on Grand Street. We have a loft.” So I went there and it was this huge, sprawling space and they could play any time. And it made me think, “Now I know what I have to do.” Because that stage for me was where I really learned how to play, by watching, listening and being on everybody’s tail, by understanding what the piano player was doing. Just watching and listening to everybody.
And constantly playing with other musicians.
As much as possible. The day I walked into my loft, I got it ready. I got a set of drums in there, I had piano, bass. I had everything set. Because I knew that if I had a place to play, people would come. So I learned by doing, not by postulating about how it could or should be. And of course, we didn’t have any choice. In New York City there was no school for jazz. They had one in Miami, Berklee in Boston, Indiana and North Texas State, but in New York they had no organized jazz instruction. Because if there was, I would’ve been there.
Did your relationship with soprano sax spring from seeing Trane live?
No, that came from playing in Ten Wheel Drive. I had to get a soprano for that band because they wrote some interesting horn parts — baritone, tenor, clarinet, soprano. There was a lot of doubling, real slick stuff. I remember the first day I got the gig, the guy said, “You gotta get a soprano.” And that’s how it became part of the arsenal. But the thing about the soprano, besides it being difficult to play...it’s a really unpleasant instrument in a lot of ways...is once you get past a certain register, it’s brilliant. It’s biting, it’s edgy. And one of my big goals was how to make this edginess into a positive situation by taking away the edge and mellowing out the sound, especially with the left hand up to the top. So that became kind of a pursuit. Tenor was cool because tenor automatically sounded OK up there, as we heard from Trane. The other precedent for soprano…we had Sidney Bechet, which of course was a very idiomatic style of playing but incredible in its own way. When I did the Bechet record (2018's Petite Fleur: The Music of Sidney Bechet on Origin Records) I got into his music. He was a great writer, he had great tunes that were on the border of swing and modern jazz. Bechet kind of single-handedly popularized that instrument, then Trane and Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy each added to the vocabulary. And each of those guys had their own sound, their own approach. In Wayne’s case it was maybe more an extension of the tenor. In Trane’s case, he introduced an Oriental vibe that changed the flavor to a more exotic kind of thing. And of course, Bechet was a more swing time feel. So there was a lot of room on soprano. And I grew to love it because there weren’t that many people playing it, which meant there was a little more room to be yourself on it. And when I got with Miles, I couldn't hear myself on tenor so I played more soprano. Because that one octave difference really makes a difference in your ability to hear it, because the music Miles played at that time was so loud.
With Elvin, which precedes my stint with Miles by two years, it didn’t matter. We had Grossman in the band and I said, “Steve, whatever you want. You wanna play tenor? You wanna play soprano? It's all good.” And he was very amicable about it. He said, “We’ll split it up.” Of course, by the time the ‘80s came, everybody was playing soprano, for better or worse.
You later had an extended period where you were strictly dedicated to playing only the soprano sax. How long did that last?
About 15 years, from 1980 to 1995. Because it was diluting the package for the cause of what? Doubling?! Back to that same conversation. Whoever said a saxophone player has to play five instruments? I don’t see a trombone player also playing a flugelhorn. Why do we have to be subjected to this “have to do” mentality, especially if you don’t like the damn thing, you know? But soprano became more prominent in my playing even though I never really did any homework on it. I never really sat down with it like I did with tenor. I noted Coltrane and Bechet and Wayne, of course. But there seemed to be room for individuality that was not true on the tenor any more. It’s just that more and more people played tenor and more and more copied the main guys. And in our era, the main guy was Coltrane. So therefore, there was a possibility of finding a style on soprano, of finding something that could be me. And giving up the tenor was a major scene. Took me two years to do it. Richie Beirach encouraged me to do it. At first I resisted. "The soprano taking the place of tenor? What about those tunes we play like 'Impressions,' that burning shit. What am I gonna do without the tenor?” And Richie said, “Hey, you gotta make it work on soprano.” And I did. The first record date I got on soprano was with Peter Donald on the West Coast. He called me for a date and I said, “Peter, I just wanted to tell you I’ve decided for my own personal artistic reasons that I’m gonna pass on the tenor. I’m not playing the tenor.” He said, “Lieb, I’m not hiring an instrument, I’m hiring a person.” And I said, “Well, thank you very much.” So that period of 15 years, outside of teaching, because the tenor is better for teaching, was straight soprano for me. And I became twice as good at it. I had tamed the intonation up to a certain point….it’s always difficult. And I had tamed, a little bit, that problem with the edginess. Because I was devoting all of my time only to the soprano. So you’re naturally going to get better at it.
There was one daring solo soprano record that you did during that period, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (CMP, 1985).
Yeah, that's my favorite of all of 'em. And I had help on that one. Besides Kurt Renker, who ran the label and produced that record, I had Walter Quintus, who was the engineer. He's turned into producer because he's got such a great ear. And he was always right there with feedback during that recording. There's some tracks on that album, like "Going Through the Wall," "The Disciple of Practice" and "The Starting Line" where I overdub eight sopranos. And without him it couldn’t have happened, because with eight sopranos in some places you’re gonna have a lot of intonation problems. And Walter had perfect pitch. He’d stop me and point out where I was being sharp or flat while I was playing those parts. I mean, the technology was such that I could try things, and Walter would ease me through them. I'd say, "I need another sound here," and he'd somehow take the computer and do something and make the soprano sax sound like a guitar. There's one portion on a tune called "Time Remembered" where if you close your eyes you'd swear it sounds like a guitar. And that's good because if I hadn't seen Coltrane, maybe Jimi Hendrix would have been my choice of heroes. But the idea for that album…I just got fascinated by the title of that book, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The book was about a prison. But I loved the title. It’s so evocative of a lot So I went around and asked some guys who were professional runners, “What do you think about when you are running? How does it feel at the starting line? What happens at the end after 26 miles?” It was really fascinating to me how a person could have the mental aptitude to do that. How do you pace yourself? And what do you think about when you’re running this three-hour race? What’s going on in your mind? And I think what we as musicians do is a little bit like the long distance runner. We’re in this lifestyle to find something of beauty and it’s a lonely track in the end…even though jazz, of all the musics, is the most sociable. You’re out on your own and you gotta come up with something. Or not.
That's the magic that your father alluded to.
Right. Like my father asked, “How do you do it?” And more to the point, why do you do it? I mean, nobody’s getting rich doing this. I mean, why play jazz? “Well, I love the trombone.” OK, so play Shostakovich or in a marching band or a funk band. Why would you choose this music? Because it’s so difficult. It’s the root of all 20th century music, so it has significance in that respect. But it’s going to be a hard battle to make a living and to make a statement that’s meaningful that reaches other people. Because if you’re going to sit in an ivory tower, forget about it. You know, our job is to get it out there as much as possible and spread the word. Last night I played at a small club in Brooklyn with Lenny White and Gene Perla, both of whom go back to playing in my loft in 1969. And people came up to me after the gig saying, "We never heard anything like that." And they’re sitting five feet away from me as I'm playing, like I was with Trane. I was actually sitting maybe 20 feet away from him when I saw him that first time at Birdland. So why do it and how do you do it? That is the question. And I always like dealing with thinking about it and talking to my brother musicians about that question. We used to spend hours talking about significant stuff like that over sips of beer…or more. But we'd talk…”How do YOU feel about this? What do YOU think? How do we get up tomorrow and do what we do?” You know, I’m very curious about it. Still am.
An outgrowth of the loft jazz experience was for the formation of the musicians co-op Free Life Communication.
It was Bob Moses who suggested organizing, doing it grassroots style. He thought that just playing in the loft for each other was basically masturbating and that we needed to play for people. He said, "There's some guys in Chicago organizing (AACM) and guys in St. Louis doing it (Black Artists Group)." So I called a meeting and 20 guys showed up in my loft -- Steve Grossman, Gary Campbell, Lenny White, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Gene Perla, Mike and Randy Brecker, Michael Moss, Terumasa Hino, Calvin Hill. That first night, Anthony Braxton came up to talk to us. He was very inspiring and very supportive. And then Leroy Jenkins came and he was the complete opposite. So we learned that there are many ways to cut the bread, so to speak. And it was Bob Berg who came up with Free Life Communication because it was free music and life was all around us and communication was our purpose.
So we would put concerts on at the Judson Church, up at Columbia University on WKCR and at museums, churches, wherever we could. And eventually it got to a point where we got 501 non-profit status. I was the president, Richie was vice president I was the president and Frank Tusa was treasurer. We had meetings, we gave concerts for the public in my loft. Eventually we ended up in this amazing 5,000 sq. ft. place called A Space for Innovative Development, which was a church renovated by a very rich family called the Rubin Foundation, who also supported the American Symphony in Washington, D.C. They came up to my 19th Street loft to hear us and meet us. And these were some very high class people -- limousine, dressed to the nines, the whole deal. And they sat on my couch with the tie-dyed shirts on the ceiling and the walls, and they listened to us play free jazz for like 45 minutes...and decided we were perfect. That first year we put on 300 concerts, all pretty much chaos/free jazz, energy jazz, pure burn. Nobody brought in tunes. We were enamored by late Trane -- seven saxophones at once do the playing and then hit the wall and go back again. And that was a really good training ground for getting your instrument together in a different kind of way because you weren't restricted by chord changes or by steady pulse. You could just do what you wanted to do. And eventually we all ended up going back and finding out what came before.
For a lot of you guys, Trane was a living memory.
Yes, because we went to the clubs and he worked two weeks at a time and he played four, five times a year in New York. But that was the period of Trane that we were emulating. And I remember Elvin saying about his time with Trane in the quartet, "We played like there's no tomorrow." And we all had that ethic. We got it from Coltrane. Because, man, he did not let up. And so Trane became our North Star.
I find it somehow poetic that you eventually came full circle in your career back to latter day Trane with the Saxophone Summit, which you formed in 1999 with Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker.
Well, when we put the Saxophone Summit together, to skip 30 years ahead from 1969, the Red Sea Festival in Eailat, Israel invited us to play. I don't remember what the premise was. Maybe a Coltrane tribute. And I remember what happened after we did the performance. I went up to Michael and said, "Mike, remember the shit that we used to do in the loft? None of us do it now." I said, "In a certain way, we've gone backwards. What we learned from late Trane, it's not on the map now. It's like it was forgotten, like a period of Mozart being forgotten. And I think it's our responsibility to bring this to the table, especially if you and I and a yet-to-be named third party do it. Because it would be a little bit of shock." And he said, "The critics will kill us." And I said, "Good. That's exactly what we need. Because nobody plays this stuff the way we used to play it. And we've all taken a 50 year vacation from it." Basically, we would be addressing all that stuff we played in our early 20s, but now we're in our 50s. So, of course, it's bound to be different. And he said, "I'm with you." And then we decided to ask Joe and that's how that band came together. But Coltrane was the mantra so we did tunes like "India," "Impressions," maybe a ballad feature like "Body and Soul." In fact, when the band started out, and even the Birdland gig in '99, which is all over YouTube, we didn't play any originals. That didn't happen until we made that first Saxophone Summit record in 2003. And the thing about that band, which is great, of course, is that we did it in a very friendly, competitive way...no ego, a lot group ensemble playing, screeching, playing free, just as we did in '69-'70, which at that time was not that usual a thing. I mean, when you say free jazz, you're talking about a tradition that begins with Cecil Taylor in '57 and Ornette Coleman in '59. And now it's become so refined. It's almost like party music when you hear guys play free now. The energy thing isn't the same. It's a different period we live in now, you know? We listened to Trane a lot back then, and this was the beginning of the bootleg thing. Like that album One Up, One Down (recorded March 26, 1965 at the Half Note nighclub on Spring and Hudson Streets, a live radio broadcast on WABC, released on Impulse! in 2005)...that title tack is a 27-minute track and, you know, it wasn't so easy to make tapes and to duplicate things in those days. So a cassette tape of that track "One Up, One Down" was passed around the whole community because it was among the greatest tracks of all time, like the Holy Grail for Trane fanatics. So the bootleg thing became big. I have maybe 30 CDs of bootlegs, most of which by now have been released in various forms. So when the bootlegs started to emerge, suddenly you've got like 20 different ways of playing "My Favorite Things" from Helsinki in '65, from Penn State in '63 and other unlikely places. It was like bootleg academia. But seeing Trane and Miles and those guys live, that's where we really learned to play because we were hearing them really stretch out.
Earlier in your career you had taken lessons with pianist Lennie Tristano. What was that like?
I spent one year with Lennie Tristano, going out out to his place in Jamaica, Queens every week. Basically, what I got from Lennie was, "You can organize this music. There is a way to learn how to do it. It isn’t just a mystery and full of mystique…an apparition. You can learn what it is if you do such-and-such.” Lennie presented stuff in his way because he had his own method. I mean, he had a list of A,B,C…you could put the meal together one step at a time. And it was very good for me to realize that because as I was getting better and getting more into it at 18-20 years old, I realized that there’s a whole deep level that I can’t get by myself…can’t get it by sitting in front of Trane, even. And that’s when we started to talk more about, "How do you learn?"
When you were doing this intense investigation of Trane, were you transcribing stuff from records?
Yeah, with the needle. Records at 33-1/3, sometimes at 16-1/2 speed.
Can you talk about the merits of practicing?
We all know the stories of Trane practicing. Reggie Workman told me once, he once said to Trane, "Man, Willie Mays did great in yesterday's game." And Trane says, "Who's Willie Mays?" You know, this iconic black centerfielder for the New York Giants, a hero and a symbol of freedom to black people everywhere....Trane didn't even know him because he was so immersed in practicing all the time. Reggie said, "If he didn't have the tenor around his neck, he was sleeping." The stories about his practicing became legendary, and Michael Brecker caught on to that. You know...you just keep doing it. And he did. And he got better and better at it, because that's something that you add a little bit every day. You add a little bit more to the pool of virtuosity and it just builds, builds, builds. Whether you're Glenn Gould or Michael Brecker, whoever you are, it becomes a compulsion. Me? I didn't like practicing that much. I liked playing more. Hours and hours of playing. We each had our own distinct ways of looking at things but it was all about, you know, trying to get a technique anywhere near Coltrane, just technically. And then to have some message to say. Because by the time got a little bit older, we realized this wasn't just music.
That it's something much larger than just notes on a page.
Right, it's the world. It's a vibration from some heavy shit, you know, and only a few people go there. But because of Trane, we were all kind of to where we saw the door cracked open a little bit, for some of us more than others. But that was the thing. And by the '80s, that was gone. But this period we're talking about, late '60s and '70s and into the mid '80s, was when the fusion thing...that was THE style. That's what you did. And you played standards at jam sessions.
You have had an ongoing musical relationship with pianist Richie Beirach for over 50 years, going back to your loft days together in the late '60s. He's a charter member of the band Quest, which had a reunion tour last year in Europe. And you've recorded several duo projects with him, the first being 1973's Forgotten Fantasies and the most recent being 2021's Empathy, a 4CD box set of free improv performances together between 2016 and 2020. How would you talk about Richie and the chemistry that you've had together all these years?
Well, as we indicate in our recent book Ruminations & Conversations (Cymbal Press), we grew up actually three blocks from each other in Brooklyn. My family stayed there...we moved houses but we stayed in the neighborhood. And his family moved to Queens. So actually, this didn't come out until the '80s, when I said, "Oh, where did you live in Brooklyn?" "Oh, Avenue P." I said, "Oh, I was Avenue M."
So you never met, even though you grew up in the same hood, more or less.
Well, you know Brooklyn..the density is pretty heavy. So you wouldn't expect to know somebody one block away, two blocks away. But that's a circumstance that just happens to be pertinent to our relationship, in a way, because we have a lot of the same tastes and things that are built into any relationship. The way Richie and I actually met was qt a jam session at Queens College in '67. After we played, I took him outside and handed him a jazz fake book that I had, and I said, "You gotta learn some of these tunes." I think I might have even checked some off for him. So that was the beginning of our physical relationship. And then somehow he and I both independently moved to Manhattan around the same time and began our musical relationship. There were common tastes and common judgments on what was happening around us musically. You know, I'd say red, he'd say redder. It was that kind of thing.
Would you call it like a musical telepathy?
Well, that's going on every time we all play. Yes, of course.
And that certainly must've manifested on your recent European tour with Quest.
Yes, which was a reunion of sorts. Our heavy time with Quest was in the '80s. That's where we did all most of our work together, certainly the bulk of our recording and gigging. It was great to see the guys (Liebman, Beirach, Ron McClure on bass, Billy Hart on drums) playing in that combination and to feel the audience's vibe, because they understood what was happening. And the one night we recorded for an upcoming album was completely free, though it's getting harder and harder to describe what is free music.
You and Richie and others in your circle were dissecting these classic jazz records as they were coming out -- McCoy Tyner's The Real McCoy, John Coltrane's Impressions, all of Wayne Shorter's great albums on Blue Note in the '60s. You were probably taking those tunes apart, figuring out how they got put together.
You got it. That's exactly right. And that was a period with no jazz education. So if you wanted to learn, you had to sink or swim in the street, so to say. You looked for spaces to be able to make your personal statement, and you hopefully made relationships with some of the heavy guys out there because they were around back then. Quite a few of them were still around in the '80s. But this band is descended really from the '60s influence, and filtered through out particular way of doing things. That's how I would describe Quest.
Richie Beirach was a charter member of Quest. You two also recorded many duets together over the years, beginning with 1973's Forgotten Fantasies and all the way up to 2021's Empathy. It's just miraculous that you've maintained this musical partnership all these years and that it's still so potent.
Actually, more potent than ever before, because we've learned how to play free better than we did in the '60s. We tried in the '60s. The model was Coltrane's Ascension. We gathered all these Trane alcolytes and got together. It was a time of trying things and experimenting. And one thing we wanted to try was the duo because it was just for the convenience of not having to have drums and bass. It was nothing personal, the idea was to make due with just the two of us. I had a piano and he had a piano, and we spent time looking at chords and discussing harmony and so forth. It was not as organized as it appears now when you talk about it. It was pretty adhoc. But it was cementing a relationship that continues to this day.
And now when you listen to Empathy, one gets a sense that there's a lifetime of experience behind each note played.
Well, I hope so.
You're not guessing or playing at something. You're revealing your life experience on those recordings.
Well said, my friend. Thank you.
You've had an outpouring of new recordings of late.
Yes, and there's more that I've done in the last six months that haven't come out yet, and they're all pretty much free jazz projects. There's a duo with the piano player Dave Lantz, who was a former student of mine from Pennsylvania and who now lives here in New York City. There's duo recording I did with Sam Newsome in a church way uptown on Dyckman Street in Inwood. There's the new live Quest album coming up and another Coltrane/Ascension type three saxophone recording with me, George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi. We did it in Boston about three weeks ago and now I'm going to try and find a situation for that recording. Also, my son-in-law, drummer Willie Rodriguez, recently did a record and I'm on three tracks. And I did a duet a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn with the pianist John Blum, who is the most like Cecil Taylor I ever heard. Quite a challenge to play saxophone in that circumstance.
How do you remain so incredibly productive at age 76?
I'm looking at a stage in my life, like late Trane...late Lieb. I'm in my mid 70s now and I'm realizing that it's time to review and organize everything as best I can. You know, you see the light getting dimmer as other circumstances take charge, namely your health. I mean, I'm healthy, I'm cool. I'm feeling leftovers from a hip operation a couple months ago. But when I look around at the way the world is, what's going on right next door, let alone in the Ukraine, we have a lot of problems that are exponentially larger than ever before. Or so it seems. But if you're a good communicator, you can reach your audience no matter what. So I just keep playing.