Artist: Dave Liebman, w. James Madison University Jazz Ensemble
Album: Joy: The Music of John Coltrane (1993)
I found this rare gem at Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart a couple months back. Being a big Dave Liebman fan, I was taken aback because I hadn’t before heard of this album. (That’s not surprising, though, considering the depth and breadth of his output.) This immediately stood out to me for two reason:
1. The album is the delayed companion to his earlier Homage to John Coltrane (1987), perhaps my favorite studio album of his. Most of the arrangements here are modeled after his combo arrangements from its predecessor.
2. The personnel includes Butch Taylor and John D’Earth, two Virginia-area heavy-hitters who at different points in time have been integral in the evolution of the Dave Matthews Band as sidemen. I was excited to hear both of them, especially Butch, play in a pure jazz environment. At the time this was recorded, DMB was still relatively unknown outside of Virginia.
Without doing a “double entry,” it’s worth noting that this album is most fully appreciated if you’re familiar with Homage to John Coltrane. Liebman, a strong champion of Coltrane, especially his later work (1964-7), often features creative, original arrangements of Coltrane pieces, especially of the lesser-known works. (In both albums’ cases, the combined “Joy/Selflessness” is a prime example.) In the spirit of homages and champions, it’s also worth noting that the band here is led by Gunnar Mossblad, a strong proponent of Dave Liebman’s musical contributions. Now that you have an idea of this album’s somewhat convoluted “bloodline,” I can discuss some of the music.
The album opens with ominous percussion and rain-like effects, going a few extra steps to set the mood for the first piece (“After The Rain”). However the first number doesn’t feature big band, but rather flute choir (JMU Flute Choir, including bass clarinet) featuring Liebman’s soaring soprano (which he plays exclusively throughout). It may look odd on paper but it works nicely. (It’s also fitting if you’re aware of Liebman’s penchant for flute.) The big band kicks it into high gear on the next selection, almost as if they’d been waiting in the wings for the flute choir to finish. They plow through an engaging arrangement of “Untitled Original” (an unnamed Coltrane tune caught on several recordings before he died). It’s worth noting that while this is mostly a student ensemble, the rhythm section is “stacked” here with local pros (including Butch Taylor on piano), with John D’Earth filling in the trumpet section. Gunnar also is featured on tenor saxophone as occasional dual-soloist with Liebman on the dark, unsettling “Alabama.” They two wind men also display their skills on wooden flutes in “India.”
For those familiar, this album is classic Liebman – complex, intense, eclectic, equal parts soothing and inaccessible, and original. For those looking for a more traditional “college big band” sound, the only thing that comes close is the arrangement of “Naima.” Otherwise the arrangements aren’t your typical big band pieces. My personal favorite is the closer, “Joy/Selflessness” (a combining of two Coltrane numbers), the arrangement of which – done by Liebman and Jim McNeeley – is modeled closely after Liebman’s on Homage. They take an already altered chromatic progression for “Joy” and add even more color, with the winds providing a nice counterpoint to Lieb’s soprano. Including the “help” in the rhythm section really helps to keep this album from seeming like just another jazz artist sitting in with college students. (The students do a fine job of handling these difficult ararngements.) Instead the ensemble works as a whole, and it’s a nice end product.
For those DMB completists (like myself – this album was a dream find, combining my two Daves, Liebman and Matthews), Taylor and D’Earth do get their time to shine. Keep in mind, however, this is Dave Liebman’s album. Butch gets decent solo space on “Untitled Original” and “Naima.” It’s great to hear him play changes, divorced from a more rock-based setting. As for D’Earth, he helps take “India” into another realm, hanging with Lieb every step of the way.
I highly recommend this for any fans of Liebman, late Coltrane, or progressive jazz in general. (And any DMB completist looking to widen his/her palette, of course!) It’s quite difficult to find physical CD copies, but it’s easily accessible via purchased download online.