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David Liebman - The Distance Runner

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Artist: David Liebman

Album: The Distance Runner

Label: Hatology

Review date: Jan. 16, 2006

The Distance Runner is a designation befitting saxophonist Dave Liebman more than most. He’s arguably at the peak of his powers and activity as he approaches his fourth decade as a jazz improviser. His lengthy career traces a stamina-rich path through the music’s more recent developments from modal to free to fusion, crossing paths with giants like Miles and Elvin along the way. Last year marked a particularly fecund span. He recorded for a handful of different labels and in an eclectic array of settings while continuing his collaborative relationship with Hatology, a teaming that initially arched eyebrows amongst some of the Swiss imprint’s more staunchly avant-aligned subscribers. Since then, Liebman’s track record has largely quelled critics who might deign to distrust his free jazz credentials.

The provenance of this set is a bit surprising too given that it marks the first solo concert release of Liebman’s career. Taped at the 2004 Willisau Jazz Festival, it finds Liebman holding forth on soprano, tenor and wood flute in front of what sounds like a sizeable crowd. The program is a mix of originals, some from past albums, and pair of standards with deep-seated ties to Liebman’s own tastes/influences. He approaches the Bechet staple “Petite Fleur” from a fresh contrastive vantage, initially emphasizing its melodic poignancy and delicacy before switching to some raucous hard swing in the second half. The set closing cover of Coltrane’s “Peace on Earth” takes similar liberties. Liebman shapes a preface of crenellated trills, settling into soaring legato strains aimed squarely at the stage shell rafters, only to end with a lone dissipating rasp.

Of the original pieces, “Mother; Father” portrays parental parts with flute and tenor respectively, the former favoring an austere, almost Oriental shakuhachi sound, while the latter evolves from a warm burnished tonal source. The somewhat ungainly entitled “Time Immemorial: Before, Then, Now, After” stretches to a quarter of an hour and integrates modified tape of overdubbed saxophones as a constantly-fluctuating ethereal backdrop. Liebman opens on lyrical alto and involves tenor and soprano in substantive solos before the close, but the nebulous accompanying noises struck me as distracting and largely superfluous when levied against the core real-time improvisations.

As good as the playing is, there’s still a bit of a rote quality to the concert, as if all that time gestating in Liebman’s head eroded some of the edge from the end results. In this respect, the performance lacks some of the stark focus and incisiveness of his earlier solo studio album, Colors, also on Hatology, a disc that provocatively confined his palette solely to tenor (and is referenced in revised form on the piece “Colors: Red, Gray, Yellow”). Reservations aside, this is prime Liebman and fans of the man’s playing will uncover much to gorge on here. Another plus: Liebman limits the length to a lean 55 minutes. The relative brevity invites repeated spins without the worry of miring in needless expository padding.

By Derek Taylor

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