Saturday, September 23, 2017

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano - Compassion; Martial Solal & Dave Liebman - Masters in Bordeaux

Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano
Compassion - The Music of John Coltrane

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman
Masters in Bordeaux

David Murray heard me talking about Chasing Trane, the recent John Coltrane documentary, back in the spring, as he walked past me at the James Street Gastropub. He was in town with Kahil El'Zabar and about to head down a flight of steps when he stopped and joined the conversation. "Do you remember what Bill Clinton said about him," Murray asked me. At that moment, I was about to scoff to a friend about Carlos Santana's ridiculous comment about Trane, which I did recall. All I remembered about Clinton was that he came across as really knowledgeable about his subject. Specifics, I forgot, and I felt like I blew a chance to share a moment with this saxophone giant.

"Bill Clinton said that Coltrane did what Picasso did for art, but he did it in 10 years instead of 50 years. I thought that was pretty profound," he said, and made off down the steps.

That aspect of Coltrane's career is easy to overlook if you're not thinking about the chronology of his work. Leaving Miles' quintet, joining Monk, rejoining Miles, making Kind of Blue, sheets of sound (Giant Steps was recorded a few weeks later!), A Love Supreme, all those wild sets with Pharoah Sanders and then death - that all happened between 1957 and 1967. How many times have you shaped history in the past 10 years?

As I type, it's Coltrane's birthday. He would have been 90 had he not died 50 years ago this past July. The decision to write about Compassion today was actually a coincidence (like many of these reviews, it's been on my mind for quite some time). Tributes to musicians on par with Coltrane often give me pause because they become a pitfall where the performer gets caught up in reverence and doesn't make a lasting impression. (It's like paying tribute to ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream, aside from some Gloomy Gus?) Or the original music gets dropped into a new setting, with mixed results.

Anyhow those issues are for naught because not only do Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano dig into this music with strong command, they deliver a complete portrait of Coltrane, from the ballads to the unhinged wailing. These six tracks were actually recorded in 2007 for a BBC Radio concert marking the 40th anniversary of Coltrane's passing. Ravi Coltrane, the third horn in Saxophone Summit, couldn't make the session, and Ron McClure fills in for regular Summit bassist Cecil McBee. Pianist Phil Markowitz and Billy Hart complete the group.

The other strength of Compassion derives from their choice of material, which intentionally veers away from the obvious works associated with Coltrane. Instead of "Blue Train," they opted for "Locomotion," a blues-with-a-bridge tune from that same album. "Equinox," from the Crescent album, is a little more familiar as is the touching "Central Park West" which they combine with "Dear Lord," making a ballad medley that offers solos from Lovano and Liebman respectively.

"Reverend King" will be familiar to Coltrane completists who know the posthumous Cosmic Music album. But here they put down the saxophones in favor of flute (Liebman) and alto clarinet (Lovano) which gives the thoughtful theme a strong, ruminative sound. Liebman also plays some wooden flute at the beginning of "Olé" before he picks up the soprano and goes to town with his compadre. In a great sense of contrast, the piece concludes with a thick solo from McClure.

By the time they get to the title track, the final song, the fur is flying. Hart gets the group going with an extended solo before cuing in this movement from the Meditations album. Liebman's tenor hits some of high register cries that were synonymous with Coltrane, amidst his own fiery solo. Not to be outdone, Lovano busts out his aulochrome, a double-soprano sax which evokes both Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the AACM's "little instruments," adding a bit of aggression to the sound that only makes it more exciting.

Each saxophone gets his own channel with no clear indication in the notes or credits who is where. With both players starting off on tenor in "Locomotion" it makes an interesting listening game to figure out who is closer to Trane in terms of rawness and who is taking his lessons to carve out his own version of it. The answer is settled a track later when Liebman switches to soprano, which can make you question your guesses on the previous track and of course, make repeat listens mandatory.

Since this is a Resonance release, the disc comes with a 24-page book with insight from all the musicians, as well as esteemed Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn and Resonance's Zev Feldman. Listen to this as a download and you miss out on vital info - and love - that can be felt with this package.

Some quick tenor wails, which would've fit in on Compassion, appear in the middle of Liebman's "Night and Day" solo on Masters in Bordeaux. Blink and you'll miss them. Moments like that - coupled with some almost Monkish trickery later in the piece by pianist Martial Solal - indicate why this is no ordinary set of standards. These are tunes have been heard umpteem times before: "All The Things You Are," "What Is This Thing Called Love, "On Green Dolphin Street," "Lover Man" and one that hasn't been played to death yet, Miles Davis' "Solar." Not merely a blowing session, the material serves as the foundation of a summit meeting that took place at the Jazz and Wine Festival Bordeaux last year.

Solal and Liebman use the tunes as templates for deep conversations, finding new things in each one. Solal (who turned 90 last month) approaches the piano with a propulsive mind that generates excitement even in the more subdued moments. He moves gracefully from laidback to aggressive with little or no transition and makes it work.

Liebman can exude authority with even the most simple sets of notes. (Upon seeing him live for the first time a few years ago, I felt like I had been missing out until then, due to his command of his tenor and soprano work. Luckily I saw him with two more groups that weekend.) The vulnerability he projects in "Lover Man" gets to the heart of the lyrics. Performances like these make you realize why these compositions are still standards: Players of this caliber can still find plenty of new conceptions within them.

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