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New Listen: Dave Liebman’s ‘Ornette Plus’

Artist: The Dave Liebman Group
Album: Ornette Plus (2010)

As expected, Dave Liebman has continued to expand his mammoth catalogue in 2010.  A number of releases have dropped in the last few months, but this particular record – I still use the word even though this is an iTunes-only release! – has flown somewhat under the radar.  While I still need to catch up on a number of the other releases, I can assure you that this one simply isn’t an afterthought (when compared to its more publicized counterparts).

The Dave Liebman Group is:
Vic Juris – Guitar
Dave Liebman – Saxophone
Marko Marcinko – Drums
Tony Marino – Bass

Ornette Plus serves as a live b-side of sorts to DLG’s recently-released studio album Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (2010).  It features performances of three Coleman tunes – “Turnaround,” “Lonely Woman,” and “Cross Beeding” – as well as an adventurous 30-minute interpretation of Vic Juris’s “Victim.”  DLG is, hands down, arguably the best live ensemble I’ve seen.  Musicality and virtuosity aside, they have an unparalleled telepathy and empathy that allow them to convey a dynamic, unified message.  (If you ever have the chance to see them, take advantage of it; you won’t regret it.)

“Turnaround” kicks off the album nicely.  While maintaining a number of the “free” aspects, it’s full of two things: groove and the blues.  Even though the pulse tends to fluctuate, there’s always a deep, dirty groove.  The melody here features a wonderful heterophony between Liebman (tenor) and Juris (guitar) – one of the group’s hallmarks.  Those two have a truly impressive ability to move together melodically without 1) requiring the dreaded unison and 2) stepping on each others’ toes.  Before reprising the final melody, there’s some great call-and-response between these two lead players.  Bluesy and gritty, this is a great opener; a nice way to “ease” the listener into the more exploratory performances.

If you’re looking for something similar to the original “Lonely Woman,” then listen elsewhere.  The ensemble displays its collective abilities here, creating an ambient, quasi-electronic soundscape that sends the listener to another world.  Liebman trades in the sax for a wooden flute, soaring over a pulse-less backdrop of harmonic texture, drones, cymbals, and tribal percussion.  It’s almost difficult to believe it’s the same group, let alone the same album; a nice contrast to the opener.

“Cross Beeding” is pure Ornette.  After a brief solo introduction on soprano saxophone, Lieb and Juris once again lead the group heterophonically in a more “traditional” frenetic and stilted Coleman manner.  Abruptly changing pace, Marino shines on the bass, soloing over a spooky, ambient backdrop similar to “Lonely Woman.”  Gradually the entire ensemble joins, and Marcinko drives the rhythmic activity, escalating until the whole group is drunkenly dancing about at the end.

The album “closes” (it’s the entire second half) with “Victim,” a Juris original.  Not only does the quartet explore collectively here, but each member also gets a chance to shine in the spotlight.  The Coleman compositions were bent more towards featuring the ensemble as a whole, not unlike a classical concerto for orchestra.  “Victim,” however, allows each soloist to speak freely, with only two brief, burning statements of the melody.  (A live performance was also released on 2008’s online release Further Conversations, but this one stretches much farther.)  Even though all of the tunes on this album aren’t from a single performance, this rendition of “Victim” ties the album together by both hinting at a number of styles explored earlier – free, ambient, and rhythmic – and via Lieb’s brief (un/intentional?) quoting of “Turnaround.”  (The latter’s quite impressive if from a separate performance.)  It also forges new paths, featuring more extended techniques, solo play, and fast, hard-driving swing.  Vintage DLG.

This was unintentionally a longer review than usual, but that’s because this album is worth it! It may not be the best place to start with Dave Liebman if you’ve not listened to him before – or much “progressive” jazz in general – but this should serve as a real treat to those familiar and/or those with adventurous taste.  Do give this hidden gem a listen (or five or ten!) – you’ll be glad you did!

*And for those interested in improvisatory performance styles of any kind, this album (along with any other by DLG) is one of the best masterclasses you could have.*

iTunes Link