The soprano is a difficult and quirky saxophone to master. It was popular in classical music and jazz in the early decades of the last century but was eclipsed by its bigger and more reliable siblings, the alto and tenor. By the 1950s few people were playing the soprano, and it was mainly identified, in Europe at least, with the ecstatic playing of the New Orleans master Sidney Bechet. In this country two young men took their cue from Bechet and took up the instrument: Bob Wilbur and Steve Lacy. Under Lacy's influence, the small straight instrument was taken up by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who in turn inspired a revival.
Today we listen to Coltrane on recordings in the privacy of our homes and so sometimes forget the dramatic impact his playing had on those who were able to hear him improvise for hours on end. Among those whose lives were changed by Coltrane was Dave Liebman, a New York City teenager who was studying saxophone and flute. Liebman followed in the footsteps of the great virtuoso, perfecting his craft with lessons from some of the best teachers of his time, but he did not enter a conservatory; he learned his craft by playing with others while he majored in American history at college.
His apprenticeship came early and hard. After playing with local groups, he joined two of the most challenging jazz groups of the day. Between 1970 and 1974 he toured the world with Elvin Jones, who had been Coltrane's drummer, and then with Miles Davis. He has since led a number of fine groups and traveled the world on his own, playing as a guest in every conceivable context, from solo or duo to large orchestra settings. He dropped the tenor saxophone and began to concentrate on the soprano and soon developed a distinctive sound that he has continued to perfect to this day. In recent years he has brought back the tenor, but he still concentrates mainly on the soprano.
Liebman has become a virtuoso saxophonist, but his is a technique with brains as well as heart and brawn. His saxophone technique owes much to his great teacher, Joe Allard, and he has formalized and expanded what he learned, using many of the same concepts in his teaching and writing. His books on saxophone sound are fundamental, as are his works on jazz harmony and melody. There are countless books out there today that embalm and formalize the jazz musical language of the 1950s and 1960s. Liebman's harmony book is like his playing: it stretches boundaries, always open to new exploratory possibilities.
Dave Liebman brings his quartet to the Firefly Club on Thursday, November 18.