(Whaling City Sound)
Saxophonist, flutist and composer Dave Liebman is one of the most prolific leaders in jazz, having released four new projects in the past year alone. There’s more to the story, however, than a hyperactive artist cranking out pro-forma albums. For Liebman, each release affords an opportunity to explore a different stylistic direction and an opportunity to test his creative instincts with a new set of cohorts. On Ceremony, Liebman performs with a quartet of Latin percussionists and bassist Oscar Stagnaro. The album’s eight tracks emphasize the folkloric side of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Rican rhythms that have provided the foundation of Latin jazz since it emerged during the late 1940s. Although the percussive element is dense and sprinkled with drummer Willie Rodriguez’s cymbal accents, there is a spare, hypnotic quality to many of the works. Stagnaro’s bass tumbaos counterbalance Liebman’s excursions quite effectively.
The first two tracks are the session‘s heart and soul. Each pays homage to John Coltrane, one of Liebman’s major influences, and a pioneer in adapting Latin rhythms to avant-garde settings. Opening the set is ‘Trane’s “The Drum Thing.” Elemental, wistful strains from the leader’s wood flute establish a meditative mood before a processional cadence on percussion takes over. On “Tunji,” another Coltrane piece, Liebman’s tenor saxophone soars expressively over a bed of more elaborate rhythmic pulses. A tune recorded by Coltrane in 1965, “Kulu Sé Mama (Juno Sé Mama),” follows. Here, the percussion is less inhibited, matching the assertive tone of Liebman’s soprano. Buried in the long-form arrangement is a brief quote from Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” The Chesky label’s touted engineering techniques make Ceremony even more memorable, casting listeners amid the swirling rhythms and Liebman’s hypnotic blowing.
Samsara unveils a new Liebman quintet. And, from top to bottom, its members — pianist Bobby Avey, bassist Tony Marino, drummer Alex Ritz and multi-woodwind artist Matt Vashlishan — quickly prove that they’ve embraced the leader’s love of free, collective-style improvisation. Liebman limits himself to soprano sax and wood flute on this session, but the presence of Vashlishan playing alto sax, flute and clarinet dramatically expands the session’s orchestral options. Sometimes the two blow harmonically dissonant unison lines; elsewhere their solos circle and snap at one another like birds of prey fighting to the death. Drummer Ritz and keyboardist Avey ensure that song forms don’t fall into a conventional mode, poking and prodding to keep the takes loose, and sparking with surges of unanticipated energy. The inclusion of Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” is a special treat, presenting Liebman on soprano in a particularly serene and lyrical frame of mind. —Mark Holston