Dave Liebman descended upon Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House Tuesday evening with his new group Expansions, officially kicking off the band’s fall tour in support of 2015’s The Puzzle. The ~85-minute set was a shock-and-awe campaign of sound that covered a wide stylistic range.
This was my first time seeing Expansions in the flesh, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that it was my favorite time seeing the maestro live. Expansions features Lieb (soprano saxophone, wooden flute), Matt Vashlishan (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet), Bobby Avey (piano, electric keyboard), Tony Marino (acoustic and electric basses), and Alex Ritz (drums, frame drum). Save Marino, who’s played with Liebman for the last couple decades in DLG and other ensembles, the rest of the members are of a younger generation. And even though this band is only in its third year, the communication and empathy are top shelf.
With Lieb’s mammoth discography and resume that covers just about every style, configuration, and name, he has maintained a series of primary groups over the years. I mention this because throughout Tuesday’s performance I kept thinking that, at least as a starting point, Expansions is in some ways the eventual synthesis of three of those staple bands: Lookout Farm, Quest, and Dave Liebman Group. There was the electric & fusion explorations of Lookout Farm; the tasteful incorporation of the advanced harmonic — almost classical — vocabulary of Quest; and the eclecticism, adventurism, and telepathy of DLG. But of course Expansions is much more than a synthesis of old projects. The addition of a second horn — sax or otherwise — has been part of some of his other projects (e.g., his work with Ellery Eskelin, Terumasa Hino, Steve Grossman, and of course Miles), but Vashlishan’s deft multi-instrumental aptitude helps to greatly expand the ensemble’s sound and palette. This is nicely complemented by the inclusion, at times, of electric keys and electric bass. The flexible orchestration gives this quintet an expansive sound. (No pun intended.) Finally, the more youthful lineup naturally brings with it a new range of musical perspectives, interests, and influences into the fold.
The fiery set featured six pieces, all but the final two of which were recorded for The Puzzle. Getting right to it, the band started with “Off And Off,” in which the quintet gradually entering in canon via a 12-tone row and eventually uniting at the head’s end and catapulting into stratospheric solos. This nicely set the tone for the rest of the evening: Liebman’s slithering, forceful statements juxtaposed with Vashlishan’s more angular declamations; Avey’s equal parts nimble and dense accompaniment and lead playing; Ritz’s command of both rhythm and melody on percussion; all atop Marino’s foreboding foundation. Unlike other times I’ve seen Liebman, there was only one very fast burnin’ section and it was reserved for the set’s end. Instead this group lumbered mightily along, leaving nothing in its wake except for jaws on the floor. “Off And Off” was followed by “The Puzzle,” allowing the ensemble – collectively and individually – to branch further out, with the listener on edge throughout as to what would happen next. Somewhat of an inverse of “Off And Off,” the full band started the tune, eventually thinning out to solo piano in the middle of the improvisations, and building back towards the end.
For “Sailing,” Vashlishan (the tune’s composer) moved to flute and Avey to electric keys, giving the group a Lookout Farm-esque veneer. The soothing flute and soprano lines coupled with the dreamy harmonies offered a quick respite between more intense explorations. With Marino then switching to electric bass and Vashlishan hopping to clarinet, the band performed an inventive arrangement of “Danse De La Fureur” from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Ritz nearly stole the show with his impressively melodic drum solo introduction. Had Liebman not even announced the piece’s name, I would’ve recognized it by Ritz’s drumming and interpolations alone. It was both that spot on and creative. This gave way to a cacophonous electric romp that continued to anxiously build through the final statement. A furious dance indeed.
Sticking with the electric vibe, Avey’s “Liberian Hummingbird” (from 2014’s Samsara) did what seemed impossible at this point in the program: kicked the band into overdrive. The funk-laden, odd-metered vortex of a vamp swirled with dark intensity throughout, and compounded by both the return to a two-sax frontline and Avey’s use of both acoustic piano and electric keys it provided the set’s densest texture. It was simply enveloping.
Returning to an acoustic instrumentation, whatever stops remained were pulled out and disposed of with a heavy rendition of Coltrane’s “India.” Ritz began with a frame drum solo, eventually giving way to the primal cries of Liebman on wooden flute and Vashlishan on straw. This arrangement featured a slightly off-kilter take on Trane’s famous melody over a plodding wall of sound. After Vashlishan’s final solo and Avey’s largely a capella, almost impressionist solo, Lieb and Ritz poured gas on the fire and offered up a barn-burning sax & drum duet, eventually leading to the group’s final statements to close the show.
I’ve done my fair share of gushing about Dave Liebman on this site, including album reviews, live reviews, and more, and I suppose this entry is no different. However, it’s certainly justified. And, as Tuesday’s performance demonstrated, Lieb of course shares the spotlight with his four collaborators. Yes, collaborators — not just band members. Expansions is clearly a group effort, with the whole being greater than the sum of its considerable parts. I look forward to seeing the group again sometime.
Expansions is currently on a Midwest tour, so I strongly encourage you to catch them if they’re in your area. I’d catch another performance if I could. To paraphrase Nathan Hale, I regret that I have but one night this week to give to Expansions…