Dave Liebman soprano and tenor saxophones
John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress bass
Billy Hart drums
Birdland, New York City
February 10, 2012
Contact is as appropriate a name as one might come up with for saxophonist Dave Liebman’s newish outfit. This star-filled quintet—in which he joins forces with guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Billy Hart—practices what it preaches, bringing a surprisingly permeable sound to bear upon equitably spread writing and performing. Once the group took to the stage at Birdland last Friday night, Abercrombie quipped on the name, assuring us it had nothing to do with the Jodie Foster film of the same name. Then again, he added, such a connection might prove valid as they develop their interactions over time. If this show was any indication, I am inclined to agree, for most intriguing were the dramatic developments it underwent over the course of its four long tunes.
Liebman’s soprano, at once flute- and trumpet-like, was the first to catch our ears as it danced through a tentative midrange guitar in “Soundup” (Abercrombie), also the opener of the group’s 2010 Pirouet album, Five On One. Hart set a precedent of color for the night with his glottal cymbals, while Gress’s well-tuned fingers brought an omnipresent depth. Abercrombie’s first solo was buoyant, if conservative, and seemed to end just as it was flapping its wings. Copland was almost inaudible at first, preferring, it seemed, to linger like a trembling breath. Liebman’s bubbling gestures, on the other hand, sprouted a wealth of chromatic foliage. Every note had its own tone, shaped by a rare breadth of embouchure. Once he and Abercrombie receded, Copland at last came to the fore. Spearheading some lovely trio action, he brought out the classic core that moves the heart of all of these musicians. Notable was the way in which he unraveled the number’s tightly woven themes, making the rejoinder all the more comforting.
“Footprints” (Shorter) arose out of a quiet eddy in which Liebman swam limberly on tenor, fading in and out, as he did throughout the set, like an ear selectively attuned to stillness. Abercrombie was visibly more comfortable in his solo this time around. He moved with a hum of wincing energy, seeming to first define a branch then trail from it like a spider from a thread of web. Copland kept his hands quite close for his turn, as if tied by one of those very threads to some hope through foggier days. Hart was the real star here, dialoguing on the light fantastic with the rest of the band in vast, metallic exchanges.
If the winds of improvisation had only begun to blow before, in “Childmoon Smile” (Copland) they now whistled through the trees of the audience with the insistence of a dream. The tune’s composer regaled us with a lush solo, gilded by Hart’s bronze, before Liebman dovetailed his soprano to the emerging carving. Gress evoked Gary Peacock in his solo, while Copland sparkled like a watery surface in soft focus. Hart’s brushes were at once ice and sand, brought to life with a kiss of warmth. After leaving the quiet vessel of Abercrombie’s solo, Liebman saw fit to ply more cosmic territories. Copland added his characteristic impressionism to the cubist splendor of Liebman, who enchanted with the most innovative solo of the night before Copland wrung out another verdant splash to close.
Abercrombie led us down an abstract path to “Blues Connotation” (Coleman), which kicked off the set’s final cerebral groove. Liebman was superb on tenor here, moving in clusters and high-flying loop-de-loops, echoed by Abercrombie at every catch. Both scaled and slid through this melodic plane like an uninterrupted game of Snakes and Ladders. Gress flickered like a candle in fast forward before Copland crept in from the periphery. Then, it was just he and Gress taking us into blissfully unexpected territories, uniting in moments that elicited gasps of admiration from the audience. Hart reprised his locomotive charm and unmasked a solo like an origami figure unfolding and refolding itself by fire alone. The final stretch went down like a swig of Jameson.
Liebman plays at the speed of thought. He allows for space, vital and alive, drifting in and out of the ear like an idea does the mind. His playing is something beyond melody, yet entirely devoted to it. Copland’s inventiveness is limitless, and in such a rich setting he had more enough to work with. Abercrombie was fluid as ever, though it seemed to take him a while to warm up to the feeling of the moment, and it a great pleasure to finally see Gress and Hart in concert, for the two of them provided a penetrating elasticity that was subtly surprising. Here is a band that really listens, and we can only give the same in return.