It has been far too long since Dave Liebman last played in Portland. The former Miles Davis sideman has certainly not been idle, though, having continued to prolifically compose, record and tour as well as educate a new generation of creative musicians. To top it all off, the now 68 year-old New York native was proclaimed a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011.
After giving a workshop earlier in the day, Liebman entered the chapel of Woodfords Church on Friday, Oct. 10 night before a near-capacity crowd, full of anticipation as they sat comfortably, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the pews.
With just the slightest bit of amplification, the saxophonist’s new ensemble, called Expansions, was able to fill the acoustically-friendly chapel with compelling sound. The quintet delivered a varied, and often intense, 90 minutes of jazz that freely referenced the past while also staying very much in the moment. It was somewhat of a surprise that the program, for the most part, stayed away from original compositions from the group’s new CD Samsara. But, the new twists and turns that the players put on classic tunes made them like new in many respects
Two Thelonious Monk tunes provided jumping-off points for the group to inventively complicate Monk’s already quirky compositions in fascinating ways. “Ugly Beauty,” particularly, integrated ominous suspensions of time and a compelling noirish drama underneath it all. “Evidence” gathered tremendous momentum as Liebman, on soprano sax, and Matt Vashlishan, on alto sax, deconstructed the melody.
Pianist Bobby Avey, who provides many of the updated arrangements employed by the band, offered a section from his suite inspired by Haitian music. Vashlishan, on clarinet this time, and Liebman, on soprano sax, soared above a distinctive Afro-Caribbean rhythm set by Tony Marino on bass and Alex Ritz on drums. Avey’s contribution, as a pianist, came from inside the rhythm. Later in the set, he would give glimpses of a more measured, lyrical side.
The young Ritz was a wonder throughout. His polyrhythmic approach firmly established the complex time signatures that, as Liebman noted at one point, the band frequents. His solos were brief but full of fresh ideas and, next to that for the leader’s work, garnered the most enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
The leader reaffirmed his reverence for the music of John Coltrane by verbally introducing the band’s take on “India” before launching into a musical introduction on wood flute. Ritz added tapping on a frame drum to the mix until, with subtle hand signals, Liebman got the band to gradually rev-up to an amazing intensity, all set against a droning undercurrent. Switching to soprano sax, the leader undertook a high-energy solo that definitely paid tribute to the master while also confirming his own remarkable skills. A few yeahs and wows from afficianadoes in the audience blended in with the overall strong applause for this number.
A slightly off-beat selection was Avey’s arrangement of “Love Me Tender,” the old tune associated with Elvis Presley. The band seemed intent on conjuring the spirit of the former teen idol with an overtone-heavy, bowed solo by Marino leading to some plaintive, floating harmonies between soprano sax and flute.
To conclude the performance, a take on the “Danse de la fureur” movement from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” succeeded at reimagining the work’s textures and colors through a jazz sensibility. it was further evidence of Liebman and company’s wide reach and keen insights.
As the crowd departed the hall, more than a few sought out Paul Lichter of Dimensions in Jazz to thank him for bringing a jazz master back to Portland.