“Before Your Very Eyes”: The Masters Quartet Live Report

August 4, 2012
8:30 & 11:00 pm

Steve Kuhn piano
Dave Liebman saxes
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums

My first pilgrimage to New York’s hallowed Birdland brought me before the Masters Quartet. One year later I find myself coming full circle, once more in the presence of these phenomenal four.

Opening a pair of trio tunes (sans Liebman), Kuhn lulls a sold-out house with his intro to “There is No Greater Love,” from which arises a synergy between bass and drums that will come to rule the night. Those full and sparkling keys bring us to a gorgeous turn from Swallow, who casts a distinctly rounded shadow with a new custom instrument. His “Dark Glasses” marks the first of two nods to Wisteria, his new ECM joint with Kuhn and Joey Baron. Its slick ground line is the sunshine to Drummond’s butterfly wingbeats. The second Wisteria tune, “A Likely Story” (Kuhn) ends the set, for which Drummond wows with a proper solo, projecting sparks of life.

Along the way, Liebman lays down some tenor for an original, G.I.G. (i.e., George Ira Gershwin). With characteristic robustness he runs up and down the thematic ladder, pulling out a squeal or two along the way and pausing for effect against the tide. Kuhn throws in playful clusters Drummond’s way, joining Liebman in whipping the band to a cerebral, Masada-infused froth.

Swallow spins arid webs from the opening of Trane’s “Village Blues.” A solo from Kuhn, hip and loose, referees a heavy exchange between sticks and reed. Swallow follows up with “Remember,” for which soprano makes its first appearance of the night, complementing the bass’s winding legato. Liebman softens the mood with “Mommy’s Eyes,” projecting a childhood’s worth of memories and developing like a color photograph turned sepia from an oceanic voyage. Kuhn lifts these recollections beyond language, ensuring that only in music will we fold the void of loss into something shining and familiar.

The second set kicks off with “Eiderdown” (Swallow). This classic morsel is smoothness incarnate and provides ample segue into “Stella by Starlight.” Swallow’s lyricism here is a joy, feathered by a bone-vibrating quality, while Drummond skips stones across the watery surface of his Gretsch kit at the most tasteful moments. But the lantern is just getting lit, for Liebman has taken to the stage with plenty of midnight oil to spare. That soprano, silky yet striated with coal-bright sentiments, drips liquid gold in his “All the Things That…” Nothing, however, surpasses the nightcap: four unforgettable tunes of—say it with me—masterful proportion. A profoundly considered take on Wayne Shorter’s “Black Eyes” reveals catharsis from Liebman, who traces thicker shadows in the meditative rubato of “Master of the Obvious.”

A misplaced score yields the night’s greatest treasure when he reverts to tenor for an off-the-cuff “Blue Bossa.” He and the band do wonders with this, following up with the appropriately titled “Four” (Miles Davis), which runs a course of snakes and ladders through the jazz lover’s soul into Drummond’s fabulous closer.

Having just completed a European tour together, Swallow and Drummond make an intuitive team, while the ever-attentive Kuhn doesn’t so much make as allow the piano to sing. Yet it is Liebman whose storytelling goes deepest. His slipstream brilliance smoothes out every sonorous wrinkle to hotel sheet crispness, such that by the end it’s the vamp that feels avant-garde.