Saxophonist Dave Liebman and jazz-tango bassist Pablo Aslan in Chicago

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Dave Liebman
  • Naoki Hayashi
  • Dave Liebman
Few jazz saxophonists over the course of the last four decades have been as powerful, prolific, and adaptable as Dave Liebman, a furiously talented technician who first made his mark as an energetic blower in the early 70s electric bands of Miles Davis—that's him blowing astringent, tireless lines on albums like On the Corner, Dark Magus, and Get Up With It. In the years since, he's demonstrated facility in just about every contemporary jazz style—namely fusion, free jazz, and postbop—although his sound owes its greatest debt to John Coltrane. Liebman makes a rare Chicago visit on Saturday, when he plays the Green Mill with a strong local band: pianist Jim Trompeter, bassist Kelly Sill, and drummer Joel Spencer.

I've always had mixed feelings about Liebman. Although his technique and improvisational vigor is beyond reproach, in certain contexts I find his music uninspired and too bogged down in postbop formalism. Yet in other settings his playing knocks me out. This morning I listened to Renewal (Hatology), a fantastic 2008 album he co-led with fellow saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, featuring bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jim Black. He and his fellow reedist comprise a formidable front line, but their collective skill never overshadows an impressive rapport and level of interaction, and the group fearlessly covers plenty of stylistic terrain—free bop, blues, the Eric Dolphy classic "Out There," simmering balladry. Liebman is also fearless in going head-to-head with the singular British free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, as he did on the 2009 trio album Relevance (Red Toucan), with drummer Tony Bianco. On two set-length pieces the reedists unspool rigorous extended solos and astutely braid together complementary, quicksilver lines; unsurprisingly, Parker more explicitly draws upon his jazz foundations than he does in most of his free-improv work. On his 2005 album, The Distance Runner (Hatology), Liebman proves adept at one of Parker's preferred contexts, playing a solo concert. While his improvisations here emerge from compositions—including takes on Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur" and Coltrane's "Peace on Earth"—Liebman does experiment with episodic forms (and spectral tape backing featuring electronically processed sax sounds) on "Time Immemorial: Before, Then, Now, After," and free-jazz intensity and extended technique on "Colors: Red, Gray, Yellow."

Earlier this year Liebman and his long-running collective Quest—with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart—released Circular Dreaming (Enja), which focuses on the 60s work of Davis. Both he and Beirach contributed an original piece inspired by the trumpeter, but most of the album consists of classic tunes that saxophonist Wayne Shorter wrote for the Davis Quintet, and Quest reconfigures them—changing the tempo of "Footprints" into a brisk 4/4 from the original's patient 6/8, and bringing a more bluesy, swing feel to "Nefertiti." Below you can check out the group's version of "Pinocchio."

Pablo Aslan
  • courtesy of Pablo Aslan
  • Pablo Aslan
Every spring the University of Chicago Contempo series presents an intriguing concert pairing a jazz-related ensemble with a contemporary classical work. This weekend the terrific jazz-tango band led by Argentine bassist Pablo Aslan will play a set, followed preceded by a performance of Jorge Liderman's opera Antígona Furiosa, performed by three pianists (Winston Choi, Lisa Kaplan, and Adam Marks), three percussionists (David Skidmore, Doug Perkins, and Robert Dillon), and three vocalists (mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, tenor Benjamin Robinson, and baritone Ricardo Rivera). The program happens Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center for the Arts.

As heard on his terrific 2010 album, Tango Grill (Zoho), Aslan has developed a gripping sound that combines the nuevo tango approach of Astor Piazzolla with rigorous improvisation—although he moved to the U.S. when he was just 18 to study jazz, he's become a master of his homeland's signature style since relocating here. For his latest recording, last year's Piazzolla in Brooklyn (Soundbrush), he and his quintet tackled Piazzolla's obscure 1959 album Take Me Dancing, with the bandoneon master cut in New York with jazz greats like vibist and pianist Eddie Costa, bassist George Duvivier, and guitarist Barry Galbraith. According to Fernando Gonzalez's liner notes for Aslan's recording, Piazzolla considered the album "a monstrosity" and a "sin," and indeed it has a facile, superficial quality that results from forcing a stylistic marriage without proper understanding and preparation. Still, it was a good idea, and one that Piazzolla would return to later in his career with much better results.

Aslan thought the record was awful the first time he heard it too, but it stuck with him, and Piazzolla in Brooklyn was his effort to correct the original's problems. The fusion of tango and jazz is much more fluid and integrated, the performances extended with meaningful improvisations from a terrific band. The group he leads this weekend is totally different from the one on the recording, but it's no less terrific, including trumpeter Diego Urcola and pianist Emilio Solla. Below you can check out "Oscar Peterson," a Piazzolla original featured on Aslan's recent album.

Today's playlist:

Curtis Macdonald, Community Immunity (Greenleaf)
Fredrik Nordström Quintet, No Sooner Said Than Done (Moserobie)
Guardian Alien, See the World Given to a One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey)
Spirogyra, A Canterbury Tale (Castle)
Joel Grip, Pickelhaube (Umlaut)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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