It’s been my privilege to know Dave Liebman for over twenty five years. Of course I’ve known him from his recordings long before that - ‘Lookout Farm’ on the Horizon label, the legendary burning and swinging solo on ‘I Concentrate On You’ from The Opal Hearted Aborigine, his passionate and intelligent playing on Steve Swallow’s “Home” album, and the incendiary playing on Elvin’s ‘Live At The Lighthouse’. Of course he was also well known for his work with Miles, but I didn’t get to know those recordings till later. I first met him in person when I attended the Banff Jazz Workshop as a student in 1986. Dave was a member of an extraordinary faculty that was led by Dave Holland, and he made a huge impression on me as a teacher, a philosopher about the music and life, and was (and is), the embodiment of someone who has devoted their lives to the playing and teaching of jazz, and of living a life at the highest level of creative music.
I got to know Dave at the workshop and I played with him for the first time the following year, (a memorable gig with Sonny Fortune, Richie Beirach and Billy Hart, with me hanging on for dear life!), and recorded with him for the first time in 1989 with the Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio, a group that developed a long term playing relationship with Dave and with whom we toured in Europe and Australia and made two recordings. Since then I’ve played with Dave on many occasions, recorded with him, taught with him, worked with him on the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting, got to know his great family, and generally hung out with him and discussed life, music, and the universe on innumerable occasions. So it was with great pleasure that I welcomed him back to Ireland for a short tour this past October – this is an account of what we did........
The tour was built around three trio gigs, with the addition of the great young Finnish drummer Jussi Lehtonen. I was lucky to get Jussi, he had come in at quite short notice when the original drummer (who shall be nameless) did the unpardonable thing of double-booking himself, leaving me with a headache as how to get a suitable drummer at such short notice, and him (the original drummer) with the reality of never being called again.......
I had played with Jussi before and always enjoyed it, and we had recently hooked up again briefly at the IASJ Meeting in Sao Paulo and had fun playing. And I knew Jussi’s great feel, intensity and sense of spontaneity would be ideal for this gig. Because this gig was based around open playing – I hesitate to use the term ‘free playing’ because like any musical term to describe a style of playing it can have so many different meanings to different people. I’d done this type of thing with Dave before with different drummers (Jim Black, Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits a.o.) and it’s always been so much fun. It was Dave’s idea – he’d heard me play some of my original music, which involved a lot of complex rhythmic elements, and had suggested playing in trio with that complex rhythmic vibe, but no pre-arranged music – free but rhythmic. ‘I want to play that hula-dula shit, but I don’t want to rehearse!’ was Dave’s hilarious and memorable phrase when he made the initial suggestion. So that was the (very loose) plan for the gigs.
Dave arrived early from NY, I picked him up at the airport, drove to the hotel, he checked in and then we hung out for a while catching up – Lieb has amazing energy and stamina – there he was after a transatlantic flight, and despite having a full schedule ahead of him, choosing to hang and chew the fat rather than go striaght to bed and rest. Eventually he went to bed and later I picked him up, we had lunch and then he did a saxophone masterclass at the school before we headed off for the soundcheck at Whelan’s - a famous Dublin live music venue where I’d played with Dave several times before. So many soundchecks these days become surrogate rehearsals due to the lack of proper rehearsal time before the gigs – but because of the format we’d be playing in there was nothing to rehearse – a very liberating feeling. Tom Rainey once said to me that the four most important words at a soundcheck are ‘sounds great, let’s eat’ - and this was one of those mercifully quick soundchecks.
The gig itself was packed and was musically great. In some jazz quarters playing open or ‘free’ is still considered to be a cop-out, as if it’s easier somehow than playing changes. But playing good music has everything to do with imagination, creativity, experience and attitude and nothing to do with the format you choose to express yourself in. Playing open is hard – to do it well and make good music you have to be listening all the time and creating your own structures in real time. When you’re playing changes (which is not easy either....) you at least have the song form as a prefabricated structure to base your improvisations on – with open playing those structures have to be put together on the spot.
For me, I find this kind of playing calls upon certain aspects of my decision making processes that are not called into play as much in song-form playing. You’re constantly called upon to decide when to play and when not to play, when to go with the flow of the others or when to go in the opposite direction, when to follow and when to lead, when to start something and when to let somebody else start something, when to reinforce the direction and vibe of what’s going on and when to suggest possible other directions and vibes. Everyone in the band needs to have this decision making ability and be open to both leading and following, directing and complementing. Just having one guy in the band who is not in sympathy with this concept will destroy the whole thing. But on this occasion, with this group of musicians, everyone was on the same page aesthetically and so the music took off from the word go.
Myself, Michael Buckley (flute), and Jussi Lehtonen at Whelan's
We played the first set in the trio format, and then in the second set Dave invited two musicians to join us – the saxophonist Michael Buckley, and my son Chris, who’s a guitarist. Michael is a really great saxophonist and has played with Lieb before – he makes a perfect foil for Dave, has a fantastic sense of when to play and when not to, plays the shit out of the horn (to use a technical term), and is a wonderful improviser. He’s also that very rare animal – a truly great jazz flute player. Dave always enjoys playing with him, has taken him on tour with him, and always invites him to sit in whenever he plays in Dublin.
Chris is just starting out in the professional jazz world, though of course he’s been around the music all his life and is now starting to make his way on the scene. He spent a week in August with Dave at his chromatic harmony workshop and Lieb invited him to sit in on the Dublin gig. I was confident that he’d be OK being thrown in at the deep end like this – I knew how he plays, and also knew that Lieb wouldn’t invite him to play unless he felt he was ready for it. And the music turned out even better than expected, with the five of us really gelling from the word go – here’s a flavour of it, taken from the last section of the concert – a real, old fashioned improvised burn-out!
The next day featured a workshop at the school and a very different kind of concert. The concert took the form of a talk by Dave on his time with Miles – this year is the 20th anniversary of the death of Miles and I took the opportunity to set up an evening where Dave would talk about his experiences with Miles in a kind of illustrated lecture – I’d seen Dave do a similar thing on Coltrane a few years earlier and knew he was an entertaining and erudite public speaker, well capable of communicating with members of the general public, towards whom this event was aimed. The music would be provided by Dave playing with Trilogue, my improvising chamber trio featuring two wonderful musicians – the vocalist Sarah Buechi and the pianist Izumi Kimura
I had done two arrangements – one of ‘Blue in Green’ with seriously altered harmony (in tribute to Dave’s ground breaking work in this area), and ‘Half Nelson’ a piece from the 50s with similar changes to ‘Ladybird’. I radically altered this piece so that the changes would only occur at the end, before that the improv was based off fragments of the melody and allowed Sarah and Izumi to do duo improvisations with Dave, before he and I took over and played the changes and took the head out in conventional manner. We ran the pieces down and Lieb suggested a few changes to my arrangements, all of which worked, and we knew it would be fine. But before the gig Dave had another thing to do – a workshop for the teachers at my school.
Usually workshops and clinics are always aimed at students, but I think it’s a great idea to occasionally have pedagogical workshops that give the teachers something to think and talk about. And there’s nobody more qualified to talk about pedagogy than Dave who’s both a great teacher and also a great believer in the importance of jazz education. He’s the founder and Artistic Director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz and a real force in education. So who better to talk to the teachers than him? It was a very valuable experience for all concerned – Lieb covered many different topics about the philosophy of education, too many to go into here, but here’s a flavour of it – in this clip Dave is talking about the importance of keeping in mind the beauty and mystery of music when teaching.
From there to the gig at the National Concert Hall - a very different venue to Whelan’s where we’d played the night before..... The audience was very different too, the Whelan’s audience had a high quotient of students and hardcore jazz fans, the Miles talk had an older audience with a higher quotient of ‘civilians’ than the night before. Some footage of Dave playing with Miles was shown and Lieb gave a very entertaining talk full of good anecdotes and insights, and the music went well, we even spontaneously added in another duo piece - “Nardis’ - with Dave on piano.
The following morning there was time for one more workshop, this time for the students, before heading off to Limerick. We had almost the entire student body there and Dave gave them an inspiring talk that covered a lot of areas – practice, transcription, seriousness of purpose etc. all peppered with great anecdotes calculated to both inspire and entertain. It was a typical Lieb call to arms for the jazz army, and the students set off from the workshop with a new sense of purpose while we set off for Limerick with a sense of purpose of our own!
After the Whelan’s performance Lieb invited Chris to join us for the rest of the tour, so we set off for Limerick as a quartet. As any working musician can attest to, travelling can be a drag, but, as I’m sure they can also attest to, it also gives you a chance to to listen to music, talk about music, and life, the universe and everything... And this we duly did as we drove around Ireland over the next couple of days. Lieb is really fun to travel with in this regard because he of course has so many stories and anecdotes, but he’s also interested in your stories and is incredibly opinionated and argumentative – but in the best possible way. Opinions are strongly (and very humorously) expressed, but differing opinions are given due consideration too. I’m quite opinionated and argumentative myself, so we had a great time chewing the fat, batting opinions back and forth, arguing, discussing, listening to music.
We talked about so many things – speculating on how the Coltrane/Elvin saxophone and drum thing originated, (did it just happen one night and they kept it and developed it, or was it discussed and tried out as a preconceived idea?), how one measures whether one has made a positive impact on the world or whether one hasn’t, music collectives (including a great anecdote about the setting up of Free Life Communication the music collective Dave and many other now famous musicians were involved with in the 70s), some Elvin and Miles stories, and a hilarious, passionate, and outraged rant from Dave about a recent experience he’d had with a ‘name’ player who ‘absolutely-could-not-play!!!’ And I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’m going to tell you who that was – ‘what goes on the road stays on the road’, it’s like the seal of the confessional.........
Limerick is the third largest city in Ireland and were were playing for the Limerick Jazz Society a great organisation that’s been putting on jazz concerts in the city for over 20 years. Ireland is a small country and jazz is a minority music so it’s tough to promote the music and put on concerts and all of that, but LJS have been indefatigable stalwarts in promoting the music, have developed an audience, and it’s always a pleasure to play there. On this occasion John Daly – drummer and one of the leading lights in the LJS – has arranged for Dave to do a workshop before the gig for a group of people who attend jazz workshops organised by the LJS. This is a very different audience from the full-time student one Dave had at Newpark that morning – these were adults who are studying the music on a part-time basis and it was fascinating to watch Lieb seamlessly tailor his approach to the situation. We opened the proceedings by playing ‘Autumn Leaves’ and then Dave took questions and everything went well, with Dave, as is his wont, being both informative and entertaining.
Lieb talks jazz at the LJS
A quick dinner (a great thing about the venue - Dolan's - is that they serve very good food downstairs) and then the gig. It's a very guitaristic night this night because in the second set we were joined by Joe O Callaghan, a great guitarist with whom I’ve worked many times before, and who played with me the last time Lieb came to ireland in 2007. So between Joe and Chris the set is very guitar-heavy, but lots of fun to play because the vibe is completely different to the Whelan’s gig. The sonic landscape is very dense, but both guitarists play differently enough to make it interesting and Joe plays one extraordinary intro to a tune in duo with Lieb – completely improvised (as is all the music of course) but feeling like they had worked everything out in advance, so nuanced was the interplay......Jussi was completely grooving, creative and generally killing – again.
The next day we head off to Cork, Ireland’s second largest city, home of Ireland’s biggest jazz festival, but more importantly for Irish jazz musicians, the home of the Triskel Arts Centre, one of the best venues in which to play creative music in Ireland. I’ve always had a good time playing there and have played so many great gigs with great players over the years, including several there with Dave. But this time there’s a new element involved, they have a new auditorium, much admired anecdotally, but this is the first time for me to see it in person. And it’s beautiful! A converted church with state of art sound equipment and great sight lines for the audience.
Triskel Arts Centre
The previous venue was small and very intimate, this is much bigger and impressive, but also has a consequently more reverberant acoustic – ‘Looks like we’re going to have to go ECM’ was Lieb’s half-joking remark, but contained in the humour is a core of pragmatism – the kind of burn-out stuff we did in Dublin, or guitar-heavy music we did in limerick, would never work in this space.
We soundchecked (including Dave trying out Jussi's cymbals and the Triskel's drums) and though the sound is different to the old auditorium, it's a pleasure to be working with the soundman Dennis again. Any musician will tell you that having a sound engineer who knows what he, (or she) is doing and knows how to amplify acoustic instruments and doesn't try and turn everything into a rock gig, is a pearl beyond price. And Dennis is one of those pearls! The soundcheck is quick and painless, a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant and then it's back to the gig.
The gig itself is very enjoyable - the different sound does discourage certain types of approaches, but encourages others that just wouldn't sound good in a drier acoustic. We play a lot more spacious music on this occasion and it's a pleasure to hear the sound of the instruments in that space. Included in the performance (as it is on all the gigs) is what we call a 'free ballad' - the idea being that we approach the piece as if we were playing a typical 'Lover Man' or 'Body and Soul' type ballad, but there are no pre-agreed changes or form. Ballad vibe and feel, but open - here's an excerpt from the very spacious and lyrical one we did at the Triskel:
And that was it - four days in which Dave did 3 gigs, 3 completely different workshops, one rehearsal, and a lecture/performance. Dave turned 65 this year, but he has the energy of somebody 30 years younger, always gives 110% in everything he does and of course is still one of the truly great jazz musicians around today. He's always been an inspiration and example for me, and of course for so many others over the years. I had a great time on the tour - here's to the next one!
I have included several sound clips from the subject of this post - all are very short and are intended as a taster for the music on the album, and to illustrate various points. If you're interested in this music please go and buy the album, support the musicians and enjoy its full sonic beauty - don't settle for some crappy compressed version on Youtube!
I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Birds of Fire’ – I was fourteen years old, and I was in a friend’s house, in the kitchen (where they had a record player for some now unfathomable reason). We were all prog-rock guys – King Crimson, Gentle Giant etc. and considered ourselves to be very sophisticated (no Black Sabbath for us!) in the superior way that only teenage boys can. I had been raised on classical and jazz music and had been exposed to pop music for the first time only the year before (seriously!). I had a brief flirtation with pop music, an even briefer one with Heavy Metal and then discovered King Crimson, which probably appealed subconsciously to my need for and experience of listening to structurally more complex music. And subconscious rather than conscious would have been an accurate description of my musical knowledge or expertise at that time.
So, back to my friend’s kitchen - he produced the album, (which had a very satisfyingly intriguing cover featuring soaring birds), put the record on the turntable, lowered the needle and…….. And basically my musical life changed from the moment I first heard the gong being struck and shimmering through some kind of phaser effect, followed by a dense and dark arpeggiated guitar figure, in what is one of the most dramatic opening moments of any album in my opinion. I sat there transfixed and almost shocked – I really had never heard anything like this. In retrospect I realize that I had in fact heard some of the elements of this music in other contexts – both classical and jazz – but at the time it just sounded like music coming from another planet.
And to cut a long story short, it set me off on a journey that returned me to jazz, and planted the seed of being a jazz musician inside me.
What’s interesting to me, almost forty years later, is that the music on ‘Birds of Fire’ not only has a function in my own personal history, but objectively, listening to it now, it more than stands up to the scrutiny of the decades. It’s still great music, on any level, and looking at it now, knowing what I know now and having the experiences I’ve had in the intervening years since I first heard it, I realize what a unique musical document it is – something that had never been done before, and has never really been done again – even by the protagonists involved in my opinion.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra was an interesting band for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it was probably the most multi-national major group in the history of jazz. There was only one American in it (Jerry Goodman), a Czech (Jan Hammer), a Panamanian (Billy Cobham), an Englishman (McLaughlin), and an Irish man – the bassist Rick Laird - someone we were very proud of around here because he came from my home town of Dun Laoghaire. Laird had left Dublin many years before Mahavishnu and gone to Australia and later London where he became the house bassist in Ronnie Scott’s club and accompanied an endless stream of American jazz legends including Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Ben Webster, Clark Terry etc etc. This was where McLaughlin, (who went to New York at the behest of Tony Williams who wanted him for the seminal ‘Lifetime’ band) had met Laird. London had an amazing scene in those days with future giants such as John Surman, John Taylor and Dave Holland all playing on the scene.
All of the Mahavishnu group had a jazz pedigree with the exception of Goodman who came from more of a rock background. Mclaughlin had played with Miles and Williams, Jan Hammer with Sarah Vaughan and Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham with Miles and Horace Silver, and Laird with just about everyone (He's almost certainly the only bassist to have played with both Wes Montgomery and John McLaughlin). Yet the music they produced was not a ‘jazz’ sound. This is the early 70s, post-Bitches Brew, post-Lifetime, all the instruments except the drums are electric, there are no swing feel pieces and odd metres abound. Both McLaughlin and Cobham played with Miles (together on Jack Johnson) and were among the Miles diaspora who created the genre that is now known as Fusion, but was known then as Jazz-Rock. And apart from Goodman, McLaughlin had connections with the rock scene, jamming with Jimi Hendrix, and playing in the same London rock/blues scene that produced Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
The group had been around for a while and ‘Birds of Fire’ was its second album. The first, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ caused a bit of a sensation on its release, its combination of instrumental virtuosity, complex time signatures, electric instruments and rock energy proved hugely popular and the band became an overnight sensation, selling a phenomenal amount of albums for an instrumental group. This album has always had its advocates as THE Mavishnu album, but for me it’s more like a prototype for what was to come rather than a definitive statement. I don’t think the compositions are as interesting or the sound as developed as on ‘Birds of Fire’ and I think at times it lapses into the solo-histrionics-over-static-rhythm-section-groove that was to so blight the Jazz-Rock movement as a whole, and which was to even become apparent on the Mahavishnu’s later live album between ‘Nothingness and Eternity’ - a blitzkrieg of duelling soloists and impossible tempos delivered with great virtuosity to an audibly ecstatic audience in Central Park. But between the bookends of these two albums the band delivered what was to be a seminal recording, both vastly influential on musicians of my generation and beyond, and also featuring music that has more than stood the test of time.
So what’s so special about this recording? It’s a combination of things - first of all there’s a cohesiveness about the entire album, it feels like something that was conceived as a whole rather than as a series of tracks that were put together to make an album. In the manner of ‘A Love Supreme’, ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Blues and The Abstract Truth’, a consistent atmosphere hovers over the whole album – the music feels all of a piece and not episodic in any way. It’s a much better recorded album than the previous one and this helps to create the feeling of an over-arching musical intelligence at work.
Then there is the sound of the music, much of which is due to the unusual instrumentation. Guitar, violin and keyboards combine together to give the music a lightness that is unexpected considering the gnarliness, chromaticism, and dense rhythmic tangle of much of the music. Jan Hammer featured the Moog extensively in the music, and these early monophonic synths didn’t have a a very wide sonic range, so Hammer favours the higher register which blends very well with the electric violin and guitar. The sonic spectrum of the front line instruments favours the upper register and they create so homogenous a sound that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s soloing where........
At the time I first listened to this music I was just blown away by it in its entirety, and it sounded to me like something that had come out of nowhere. But looking at it from many years later, and with thousands of musician’s flying hours under my belt, I can see the many influences that are in this music. The influence of Hendrix and the electric guitar culture of the 60s is easy to discern, what’s perhaps not so immediately apparent is the influence of Coltrane of the ‘Love Supreme’ period – but it’s there in McLaughlin’s playing – listen to the Coltrane-like way he soars chromatically over the shifting odd metre groove of the title track.
Another interesting thing to my ears now, having spent a lot of time over the past 20 years studying the rhythmic aspects of South Indian music, is just how much Carnatic music influenced McLaughlin’s writing in this period. Later of course he went on to form Shakti, (and presage the jazz meets world music movement by about twenty years), but he made a serious study of the Veena and this clearly be heard both in the sound of some of the melodies he composed and in the rhythmic structures of the odd metres he used which are clearly related to the tala structures of Carnatic music, while the structure of the melody, in a typical McLaughlin-ism, is clearly related to both Indian music and the blues
But I think McLaughlin not only used Indian music in his own writing, he very probably influenced other members of the group in this respect. On ‘One Word’ - which Cobham famously opens with a snare drum roll that has left generations of drummers in open mouthed disbelief – the drum groove that Cobham uses has no real precedent in jazz, yet is very common in Mridangam grooves of South India. Here is a percussion group from South India
And here is Cobham on ‘One Word’
Was Cobham checking out Indian percussion at the behest of McLaughlin? It certainly sounds like it!
But not all the pieces were either lightning fast, or odd metre workouts, the group could also get in the pocket with the best of them - ‘Miles Ahead’ is almost Headhunter-esque
But Headhunters would never have done anything as radical with this groove as Cobham and McLaughlin do later in the piece
Or how about this haunting Moog solo on ‘Sanctuary’, played over the shifting metre of the rhythm section, evoking an atmosphere worthy of the quieter passages of ‘The Rite of Spring’..............
There is just so much great music on this album – so many different ideas and approaches yet all contained within a very unique and immediately identifiable sound. The virtuosity of the players, even at a distance of forty years, is amazing (has there ever been a greater guitar right hand technique in jazz than McLaughlin’s? How can he play at that speed, with such rhythmic accuracy yet never slur anything!?), yet the virtuosity is put at the service of the music and is never subservient to it. Unfortunately the success of the Mahavishnu unleashed a slew of poor imitations all vying with each other to be the fastest, loudest highest.......
And unfortunately the Mahavishnu itself imploded not long afterwards, with the other members of the band wanting a share of the composing duties (McLaughlin had previously been the sole composer)– which wasn’t a great idea as evidenced by the release years later of ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’ which featured compositions by Hammer, Laird and Goodman, none of which rises to the heights of the earlier McLaughlin compositions. Internal disagreements ensured the the disintegration of the band, but by the time they split up they had already fallen from the heights of ‘Birds of Fire’ and had allowed their virtuosity to take precedent over the other elements of their music. But for a while their flame really did burn brightly, inventing a whole genre, influencing and inspiring countless musicians and creating one of the greatest albums of the modern jazz era.
Here they are in their prime playing in London in 1972 – chops and ideas to go, and notice the quote of the 'Jack Johnson' riff, which McLaughlin almost certainly wrote despite Miles being credited with it.............
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