LIVE: Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group @ Zankel Music Center, 7/3/18
Review and photographs by J Hunter
Dave Liebman is 72 years old. His discography stretches back to 1967 and lists hundreds of recordings as both leader and sideman, including a stint backing the Dark Prince of Jazz, Miles Dewey Davis. By rights, Liebman should have lain down on his laurels for a long winter’s nap a long, long time ago. Instead, he’s not only got one of the most interesting big bands on the menu, but Expansions – his current quintet of electric/acoustic warriors – may be the most powerful unit he’s been involved with since Miles did On the Corner. On the night before this nation’s birthday, Liebman brought Expansions to Skidmore Jazz Institute’s annual concert series so he could show the students (and the rest of the SRO crowd at the Zankel Music Center) just what real fireworks look like.
Part of not resting on those aforementioned laurels includes generating new and exciting music, and Liebman kept that streak going by bringing a new, unrecorded suite that was a completion of a series begun early in his career. The four elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – are the focus of that series, with “Earth” being the final chapter Liebman would present to us. But the renowned multi-instrumentalist had to warm up first, so Expansions broke out an 18-minute take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” that would have set the ash trees outside Zankel on fire if there hadn’t been thick panes of glass standing between us and them. Balanced on the stool he’d rarely leave all night, Liebman spewed fire and lightning from his shining soprano sax as some of the students in the front rows literally vibrated to the power of it all.
Matt Vashlishan usually catches all the reed parts Liebman is too busy to do, but tonight Vashlishan stuck solely to the Electronic Wind Instrument; this show would make two weeks in a row that EWI made an appearance at Zankel. The instrument’s synthesizer-like properties allowed keyboardist Bobby Avey to start out on acoustic piano, thought he would do wonders on Fender Rhodes later in the 90-minute set. Vashlishan teamed up with bassist Tony Marino for a meditative midpoint during “Footprints,” with the EWI giving the piece a Return to Forever feel, while Marino dove way down deep, countering everything that was thrown at him. Drummer Alex Ritz – yet another Skidmore Jazz Institute alum made good – brought the band back to full speed while added layer and layer of beauty to the classic piece. For the second time in two weeks, the Skidmore students saw how music from the past doesn’t have to be anchored by the past.
After “Footprints,” Liebman broke down his latest effort for us, listing out names of compositions and detailing where each band member would have his own turn in the spotlight. Once he counted off and Avey’s Rhodes joined with Vashlishan’s EWI, the band just rolled right on until the end of the set, showing infinite range and stylings as they dropped towering tracks on us like “Avalanche & Volcano,” “Sahara” and “Grand Canyon/Mount Everest.” If Liebman’s suite is indicative of the current state of our planet, then we reside on a very hot, angry and potentially dangerous world… or, at least, that’s the condition our planet is bound for.
“Earth” is the kind of wide-ranging epic more closely linked to progressive rock, but the molten jazz-fusion elements Liebman has commanded for almost six decades were right out front for all to see – especially the SJI students, whose best idea of fusion probably began and ended with Robert Glasper. For all that heat, though, one of my favorite moments came when Ritz riveted us with a Middle eastern hand-drum solo that led to Liebman hypnotizing the crowd with his high stylings on a small wooden recorder. You can’t always throw fastballs at a crowd, because eventually, they will wear out. Liebman knows this, and he knows how to keep the audience in the palm of his hand, which is a pretty neat place to be. You just have to keep your head on a swivel, because you might miss something spectacular.
I’ve been experiencing Liebman live for over two decades, in line-ups ranging from acoustic duos to big-band takes on John Coltrane, with an all-star turn beside Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane thrown in for good measure. At the end of the day, though, Expansions is my favorite Liebman unit because the group dynamic is so intense and so powerful, and the rest of the band drives Liebman to heights that have rarely been visited, let alone explored. Boundaries are for wannabes and losers, and Dave Liebman is neither. The fact that he’s found a pack of (mostly) young lions who can operate on the same high wire he does is both a minor miracle and a major gift, and both Expansions’ performance and its message to the students was eminently clear: When it comes to your passion, don’t aim high – shoot for beyond that.