REVIEW: Academy Big Band with Dave Liebman at Duke's Hall, RAM

Dave Liebman. Photo credit: Wolfgang Gonaus/
artist website 


Academy Big Band with Dave Liebman
(Duke's Hall, RAM, Marylebone Road, 29th January 2016. Review by Frank Griffith)

Saxist and composer Dave Liebman, was featured with the Academy Big Band, directed by Nick Smart. This annual event is part of the International Jazz Artist in Residence scheme at the RAM, now in its 5th year.

NEA Jazz master Dave Liebman's career has spanned nearly five decades, beginning in the early 1970s as the saxophonist and flautist in both the Elvin Jones and Miles Davis groups. He is also the Founder and Artistic Director of the of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) since 1989, which is a worldwide network of schools from nearly forty countries. His breadth of vision and experience was clearly communicated to the RAM students not only on stage but during his week-long residency working and rehearsing with them beforehand. The results of which were clearly evident in their exemplary performance of his complex and challenging music conducted quietly yet flawlessly by Nick Smart, an acclaimed trumpeter, composer and bandleader in his own right.

Liebman is arguably the most distinctive and influential voice on the soprano sax today. His sound has a sinewy intensity with a jagged lyricism that borrows equally from the Klezmer tradition as it does from post-Coltrane angular ferocity. It is these disparate yet symbiotic qualities that help to create his unparalleled voice on this instrument. His command of this unique tonal palette goes a long way to his projecting over the most complex and radiant big band figures on all registers of his instrument.

The repertoire performed was 80% Liebman's compositions arranged by a variety of writers including a few of Dave students (Andrew Rathbun and Henrik Frisk) to leading practitioners like Jim McNeely and Vince Mendoza. McNeely's distinctive treatment of Liebman's Enfin - meaning finally, or at last, and written as a tribute to the election of Obama in 2008 - was particularly memorable. In addition, McNeely's modernistic take on Sing, Sing, Sing the 1938 Benny Goodman anthem is clearly a great example of a timeless vehicle for big band and soloist. The melodies incorporated were largely the 1938 ones. His re-spelling of the rhythmic structures and the thicker, more dissonant harmonies sent Liebman into the lower register of his sinewy soprano. This clearly did not put off the audience as one observed their heads a-bobbin' and eyes a-listenin' throughout the largely "mature" audience - many of whom were probably familiar with the original.

Another welcome inclusion was trombonist and eminent jazz educator Scott Reeves' take on New Breed a 1972 Liebman composition originally recorded on Elvin Jones's Mr Jones LP which featured a lineup of two tenors, bass and drums. Reeves' expansive realisation began with the bass introducing the first eight bars of the melody extending into the sharing of the melody amongst the different sections in a seamless fashion. First-rate trumpeter James Copus offered a solo replete with angular melodicisms that scored highly. What followed then was a brilliantly played sax soli based on Liebman's original solo from the 1972 recording. A blistering tour de force chart climaxed by a semi-raucous and cacophonic climax then demurely sloping into a gentle close.

What a player, what a band and what a night!

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