Archive for April, 2009

Dave Liebman

April 30, 2009



You gotta four hundred bottle of wine you gotta have the right shit to eat wit’ it

                                                                                                                                      – Dave Liebman

Dave Liebman has been talking almost constantly for three hours. After one and half, there had been a short break in which the audience of Trinity College Jazz department students and staff went, nursing a mixture of fear, admiration and disbelief to the college cafe to get coffee. Liebman spent the break practising the piano. On our return, we were met with What d’ ya see me doing in the break? Certainly not getting fuckin’ coffee, which you can’t drink in this country anyway.

Liebman’s intensity, both musical and personal, is legendary and it is much in evidence during his two days at college. A wonderful combination of kindness and invective, intellect and expletive, he is absolutely genuine (and the most New York person I’ve ever met). Not bad for a man who’s over sixty, wears what looks like a painful leg brace and has spent much of the last thirty years in airports.

It is significant that the quotation at the top of this post should have been a conclusion to some advice about ear training. Liebman learned his jazz on what he calls ‘the street’ (I can’t get away with using that phrase without quotation marks) and it shows. There is something hard-bitten, intellectually tough about both his teaching and his playing that comes from years of trying to produce high art with pragmatism. Even when talking about musical topics of the utmost complexity, (check out his book A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody) he is concerned with practical ways that musicians can master these areas. Jazz is wonderful for many reasons, but one would be the extent to which it is both a practical and theoretical art form, one concerned with ideas but also hours in the day, with complex music theory and earning a living. Annoying as the practical side of jazz can be to the pursuit of musical ideals, Liebman’s talk is a timely reminder that it is exactly the chastening circumstances of being a jazz musician that make us think harder about how and what we practise. That having to master certain things to be employable and only having certain hours in the day when we can practise them raises the stakes of what we’re doing. The overall and moving message of what he says to us is that this music, and the opportunity to play it, is precious. As he put it, You’re lucky people – don’t you fuck around.   

Transcription is the heart the practise routine for Liebman and it would be worth outlining his transcription method here. It divides into three parts:

1 Singing 

2 Playing

3 Analysing

You take a solo and listen to it repeatedly till you can sing it perfectly, including all inflection, bends, smears, ornaments etc… Then, and only then, you play it on your instrument. Finally, you write it out and analyse what the improviser is doing so that you can derive exercises and practise methods from what they do.

This is a very detailed and thorough method. It means that you could easily base your entire playing approach on three or four solos, given that the scope for deriving ideas and concepts from a great solo is vast. Liebman also stresses playing and singing along with the recording so that you ‘become’ the improviser you are transcribing. Arthur Miller once said that he learnt to write plays by copying out Shakespeare by hand so as to enter his thought process and Liebman is suggesting something similar here. Both Miller and Liebman’s procedures smack of a peculiarly American mixture of mysticism and irreverence in relation to the acquisition of knowledge. They want us both to commune with the tradition in a sort of spiritual symbiosis and then to take it to bits in the garage out back. This idea of tradition as a place where we commune with the masters as people as well as repositories of musical ideas comes through in Liebman’s own anecdotes. It’s not often that I get to ask somebody what they learnt from playing with Miles Davis, so I took my opportunity. Liebman said two things. First, that however much fun you might be having on the road with your band, when you got on stage each night you were engaged in serious business. The moment you started playing, that was it – life or death. Secondly, he said that however complex jazz harmony or composition got, this music was about rhythm. This was the constant running through Miles entire career and, by extension, the whole of jazz history. There is a lovely story he told which sums all this up. He was over at Miles’ apartment sometime in the seventies and he and a few other musicians were in the lounge, with Miles off in another room. It was quite normal for Miles to totally ignore you even when you were at his house and he was rarely communicative, let alone warm. Liebman had been playing with Miles for a little while now. Quite suddenly, Miles came in and reached behind his sofa where he kept paintings. He pulled out a large photograph. It was the original of one that has since become famous, showing Louis Armstrong very late in his life, probably in 1969/70 smiling at the camera. Miles is leaning his head gently on his shoulder and looking up at Louis in admiration. Miles took the photo, walked over to Liebman and whispered in his ear ‘You’re part of that now’.  

All of the advice and methods Dave Liebman has shared over the past few days have got me thinking and I’ll use a lot of them in my own practising. And yet the deepest lesson has come just from being around him for some time, so directly and authentically is he connected to jazz and its history and so generous and celebratory in his sharing of it. Fundamentally, it is the pure joy of playing and listening to jazz that I rely on for inspiration. Liebman has been a wonderful reminder of this.