August 20, 2011
Steve Kuhn piano
Dave Liebman saxes
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums
A brief dictionary perusal of the word master yields variations on a theme of dominance: one who uses, controls, even disposes of that which is mastered. It’s with this hierarchical vision of mastery in mind that I entered the hallowed doors of Birdland for a late-summer performance by The Masters Quartet. None could earn such a title, of course, without verifiable skills and the countless hours necessary to hone them. As longtime collaborators, Kuhn and Swallow are strangers to neither, having made their first recorded appearance alongside Liebman on the bassist’s 1979 debut, Home, with over a decade’s worth of friendship and gigging already between them. Listening with eyes closed, one could hardly guess that Carla Bley band regular Drummond is a relatively new addition to this veteran nexus. Their blend was so seamless that by the time I stepped out into the humid streets, dominance was farthest from my mind.
To be in the presence of all four was already an honor, but the venue made it exponentially more so. This being my first Birdland experience, I finally understood why Charlie Parker dubbed it “The Jazz Corner of the World.” From its candlelit murmur, non-invasive wait staff, and intermittent tick of silverware to its top-flight roster, carefully considered sightlines, and one-on-one feel, the setting was ambiance incarnate. Though nothing remains of Birdland’s original digs, one can glimpse those glory days in the monochrome gallery of talents that adorns its walls. All the more reason, then, to bask in the present, where four incomparable musicians filled our ears with concoctions both pungent and smooth—not unlike the French martini at my fingertips—as they took to the stage and eased us into the evening’s intensities with a pair of trios.
A lush opening surge as only Kuhn can elicit swept this heart away in the standard, “There is No Greater Love.” With a sigh and a smile, he made us feel part of the band, creating music simply by bearing witness to its spontaneous unfolding. Through peaks and valleys, Kuhn navigated every turn of Swallow’s unshakable bass lines and the cymbal-happy squint of an ecstatic Drummond. The latter’s locomotive rolls opened a lyrical path for Swallow before kicking up a bit of dust as he exchanged jabs with Kuhn. His increasingly frenzied snare, along with Swallow’s leapfrogging bass, wound us into a state of high expectations. Thus did these gentle beginnings feed a dancing conflagration which, rather than brazenly overstepping those expectations, passed lithely through them like ghosts.
A milky intro stirred us into the coffee-like consistency of “Dark Glasses” (S. Swallow), resolving itself into a galactic swirl. With organic care, the music loosed ribbons of bass amid Drummond’s delicate knocking. Kuhn’s Möbius strip of a solo titillated (as a tongue, it would have rolled every “r”) and brought us ever closer to the filmic imagery lurking therein. Like its titular accessory, this joint at once clarified and obfuscated, cutting out the glare while hiding choice secrets.
“All the Things That…” (D. Liebman) marked its composer’s entrance to the stage. Inspired by the standard “All the Things You Are,” this smooth excursion was a prime vehicle for that oh-so-sweet soprano. With the magic of a mirage shimmering into shape, it showed us a level of tonal acuity that one can only dream of producing. Drummond provided sympathetic response, matching each of Liebman’s calls with joyful paroxysms of his own. Such were the beauties that awaited us also in “Adagio” (S. Kuhn). Here, Liebman’s slide into resplendence fogged our view with a long exhalation. Meanwhile, Kuhn tumbled in careful somersaults, marking the swaying rhythm that caught this listener from the get-go. Swallow traced a wide embrace with an engaging solo turn that seemed to welcome us all into its arc.
(photo by Manuel Cristaldi)
We were then treated to an unfailing rendition of “Village Blues” by John Coltrane, a “mentor to us all” as Kuhn so respectfully noted before its trio intro buttered our bread like nobody’s business. This proved a solid launching pad for a dramatic color shift as Liebman’s tenor awoke from its slumber. It, too, spoke in wooden riddles and guttural dreams, but those gritty squeals layered on the sonic paint—Van Gogh to his soprano’s Monet—and added a new dimension to surrender. His blows were softened only somewhat by Kuhn’s detasseling pianism, diving instead into an epic exchange with Drummond.
For the standard, “My Funny Valentine” (the “romantic highlight” of the show, as Kuhn artfully quipped), we were back to the smoky grain of soprano. Here the pianist’s poetry shone at its brightest, dissolving into lute-like strains of bass, as if in watercolor.
(photo by Robert Lewis)
Liebman’s robust tenor then inscribed “A Likely Story” (S. Kuhn) onto the pages of our attention. Against a grounded bass line and deep piano digs, he was lively and on point. Kuhn held a steady clip across his tightropes, tethers to an inspiring synergy with Drummond, who dotted the sky with sparks as this log was cast onto the evening’s kindling. I couldn’t help but note how “keyed in” Liebman was as his fingers mimed on the sax during a sit-out before he dove back in for the final splash.
(photo courtesy of the Montréal Gazette)
Mastery revealed itself in many guises throughout the show, but chiefly by the adroit ways in which the group always held fast to the tightly wound spring that thrummed at the heart of every tune they played. Their thematic cohesion was due in no small part to Swallow, who electrified with his unparalleled anchorage and fluid anticipations. Kuhn, ever the picture of concentration, threaded each of his needles with mindful improvising, those unmistakable octave splits crying with such epic grace that captivation was our only option. With every run of his fingers he seemed to travel miles’ worth of emotional distance. Against such broad pointillism, Liebman’s richness came across as filamented, teetering on edge, and all the more visceral for it. He was every bit the vocal performer, untangling seemingly impossible knots in a fraction of the time it took to tie them. As for Drummond, he seemed to squeeze every last drop of soul from the most delicate gestures, treating each as a gig in and of itself. He positively stole the show in its final gasps.
(photo by Albert Brooks)
In short, the quartet put the “band” back in “abandon” and proved yet again what for me is the blessing of jazz, an art form that makes the immediate effects of improvisation feel as if they have been growing inside us all along.
Furthermore, I discovered that true mastery bleeds from art into one’s countenance, one’s approachability as a human being, one’s humility offstage. In other words, it is nothing without the light of graciousness that permeated each of these four men, their loved ones, and the fans in attendance. In the end, their performance might very well have been but a flash in New York City’s overcrowded pan, but their afterimages are safe with me.