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A Conversation with Dave Liebman

"The world is crazy now, but we have the music to keep us together"

Dave Liebman and Jerry González (Madrid, 2018). © Mirian Arbalejo

One of the most rewarding experiences that our little four-letters universe can provide is confirming there are still figures who embody all the values and attributes of jazz, beyond the music itself. Anyone who knows him knows that Dave Liebman (New York, 1946) is one of those artists.
Even though having the opportunity to meet a NEA Jazz Master—with a myriad of awards that go from a Doctor Honoris Causa to the most renowned honors in interpretation, jazz dissemination, teaching or composition—doesn’t happen every day, the truth is that the value of the encounters with Liebman have nothing to do with his awards or with his name appearing in more than 500 records of various musical genders.
His love and commitment to what he does, his support to young musicians, his faith in the dissemination of jazz, his determination to be available to other musicians, his generosity shaped in notes or words… All of this is what defines the jazzman that leaves a mark.


I feel the need to mention something significant to all of us: I took the accompanying picture a little before sitting in that couch with Dave Liebman. It was the last time I saw Jerry González.
He came to visit Liebman, along with his crutches and a mournful, almost guarded, grimace, but all dolled up.
They talked easily. Comfortably. In a bubble of such informality, that it seemed to create a shield against possible interruptions.
When Jerry left, Dave Liebman kept looking ahead murmuring “Everybody knows Jerry”. He was deeply sorry about the fact he could no longer play. We talked about his career, about his band Fort Apache, about the influence of his music.
Later on, when we picked up a pending chat about John Coltrane’s lost album, I asked his permission to record the rest of our conversation. Here you have it.


Mirian Arbalejo: A few hours ago, we agreed to talk about John Coltrane’s last record, though it’s not really an album, but a record session. I’m a bit obsessed with the first tune, 11383.
Dave Liebman: I don't know the order...
MA: It's the new tune.
DL: But the truth is the order doesn't matter anything, because it was a studio session, it's not like Coltrane decided the order, because they did it and they forgot it, obviously, they found it now.
MA: He never thought “I’m going to create 'a whole' with this” …
DL: He did all the records where, obviously, he decided on what order of tunes, but this was obviously just take one, take two, three... It was a session, and they just recorded it and then it disappeared. But it's great to see this because it's like finding a Mozart opera in somebody's roof, you know? in the top of their home, so they go "oh god this is Mozart!". This is like that, it's finding, like, part of the Bible.
MA: Something like that, yeah.
DL: Because that period of Coltrane is, as the record say, it's a little bit of the future... what he would be doing in two years, in 64, 65, and a little bit of the past... the [Slow] Blues, Impressions, that standard [Nature Boy], Vilia... It's really both sides, it's a very good title, they did a good job.
MA: Yeah, Both Directions at Once, that's for sure.
DL: And I saw him a lot in this period, it's very representative of what he was doing, the record. It is what he was playing in the club that night. They always played Impressions, they always played My favorite things, they always played Naima. If you stayed for three sets you'd hear pretty much the same repertoire, cause the older jazz musicians repeated tunes, they did it every night.
MA: But not the same way.
DL: Miles played So What for 6-8 years, but NOT in the same way, exactly. So when you'd hear it you'd go, like, it's a little different but it's not really different, you know? Also, short versions… When you saw Coltrane live, Impressions could be an hour and a half! I saw, one time, he did a duet with Elvin Jones for 45 minutes on Impressions. So, here, on the record, it's 4 or 5 minutes, so it's very interesting to see how he put it into such a short period, so, so interesting, because in the club he played long, but in the record, because you have a short time you have to lighten it. Specially Impressions, he was very careful: five minutes, next, take 2, six minutes, take 3, four and a half minutes. Very unusual for Coltrane, but in the studio, he knew how to record, and he was a real professional, he learned from Miles. When he got to the studio, that, like, holy territory, he really had to do it right, he was very good, he knew how to record, Trane... Cause Miles, cause he saw Miles do it. That's how you learn, by watching somebody who knows what they're doing.
MA: I need to mention something about the album, because I have this approach about the Both Directions CD. Every year I write a piece about my favorite albums...
DL: ... The poll, the records of the year…
MA: Yes, I never say the best albums, I say my favorite albums, because that's the way it is...
DL: … Yes, of course.
MA: This year, I have listened to a lot of very, very good music.
DL: Yeah, there's a lot of great music
MA: New music that I love, but this year I have this new John Coltrane album, and I have this new Woody Shaw album…
DL: … In Paris?
MA: Tokyo '81
DL: I don’t know it, but I know [what you mean] …
MA: It's amazing because it had not been published before, it's the first time this album comes to light.
DL: Is that Resonance? The label Resonance? The record label, they released that, right? Who else is playing?
MA: Mmm… wait… I’ve just listened to it and I don’t remember the names… It’s a quintet. Wait a second, I don’t want to get it wrong… I can't find it now, sorry, there’s no signal, sorry. So, about the piece on Records of the year, it's very exciting to me, because this time I have this music by John Coltrane, by Woody Shaw, that is NEW to our ears.
DL: Yeah, specially for the new generation that doesn't know Coltrane.
MA: I have to write about my favorite albums and I'm trying to approach them from a contemporary angle.
DL: Today.
MA: Today, now, here. And it's a little hard, but it's very exciting, because there’s a new tune by John Coltrane I had never listened to before…
DL: …That’s right.
MA: And I'm not biased because of the big names, I think it's incredible today, you know what I mean? As a listener, today, it's incredible.
DL: Yes, it is, that's right! It's 50 years old but it feels like it was done yesterday. That's what makes music- that's how you know a great artist, if it's there 20, 30, 40 years later and you still think it's fantastic.
MA: Timeless.
DL: Yeah.
MA: It's Dostoyevsky, it's Homer... I'm with you on this.
DL: Picasso, Van Gogh, whatever. And Coltrane was of course in that category, but this is a reminder to your generation, who he was. My generation, I mean, I was there, but for a new generation it's great to hear this guy, cause it's new music, to them it's new, and to hear the way he plays, and his soulfulness. Plus, of course, the music, technically it's unbelievable, but his passion, and the whole group, that group, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, they were just... they played every night, they played forty weeks a year. Elvin told me they played 40-45 weeks a year, out of 52 weeks, so they knew each other, you can hear that on the record. The other thing is, everything swings, the feel is so good, you don't hear that now, it's changed; 50 years later it's different. But the swinging, the feel… it's so beautiful.
MA: Yeah, we must be grateful, I think.
DL: Absolutely.
MA: I have been reading some reviews and I have learned from some of them, but I have found some nonsense, saying this album "is not a big deal", and I can't agree, cause I think it is.
DL: It IS a big deal, it's a very big deal, because your generation doesn't know Coltrane, it's a new recording, it's like when Miles stopped playing for 5 years, 1975 to 1980, he didn't play. When he came back, a whole generation could say "I saw Miles playing, it's real". This is a little bit like that, I heard Coltrane, it's like, today, so it's very important for that reason.
MA: I love your generation, your music and all the good musicians that came before and after; I told you I love Duke Ellington, but I am a lucky girl because I've seen Sonny Rollins live three times.
DL: So you saw history, yeah.
MA: Yes, and I met him, I talked to him, but listening to his music there, live, it was something that changed me forever in the way I write about music.
DL: You got the right guy.
MA: [laughing] Yeah, absolutely.
DL: He's got health problems now.
MA: Yes, I'm so sorry.
DL: Yeah, he can't play anymore.
MA: We need him.
DL: I agree, I agree.
MA: We truly need him. He has these videos about life-
DL: …Yeah, they're coming now.
MA: He's very wise, a very wise man, but his music, I need his music like I need air, really.
DL: You're very sensitive, that's... I'm glad to hear that you write and you're sensitive, cause that's what we need, people who feel the music, who can really feel what jazz is about. That is really great, that is top level.
MA: This music has something different, every music is different even if you play the same tune, as we discussed before, and when you come to Madrid, I find you with a lot of different musicians, at Bogui Jazz, here, there, and you can speak this language and change your language if it's necessary.
DL: You got it right, that's right, it's universal.
MA: And I don’t know what it’s like... you have this ability to play this different kind of music with different kind of guys... I'm curious about your way of living everyday with this music being...
DL: New start every day.
MA: Yes! But this music is with you every day, so... I'm very curious about your way of living everyday with this.
DL: It's my job, I am part of the history of music, of jazz, it's my job to be dedicated to music and to bring it to people, like you, and to bring it to students, and that's, um, my responsibility. I look at it as a responsibility, I mean, I'm honored, privileged to have been with people- I have played with... There are not many people like me and my job is to bring it to you. And like tonight, these people [Sergio Pamies, Jordi Gaspar, Gonzalo del Val] seemed to enjoy it and I hope, you know, they remember it, it's all, it's the best we can do, I mean, we never played together until tonight, it's the first time we played.
MA: And look at that!
DL: Pretty good, though, pretty good.
MA: Yeah.
DL: Good musicians, very good at their job, everybody good, I had a good time, and the people were very receptive. And these guys playing [Alain Pérez, Caramelo y Piraña], they're masters at what they do so, you know, the world is crazy now, but we have the music to keep us together. People love the music, we still have that, they will never go away, the world changes and gets fucked up or weird, we still have this music, we still have this. [Music is playing in the background] What's playing now is beautiful.
MA: Yeah, it's beautiful. You know, a few weeks ago I had a conversation with Ethan Iverson. I was looking forward to our meeting because he's a musician but he's also…
DL: … A writer.
MA: A writer. And I'm very worried in the way things are happening around music.
DL: Around the world.
MA: Yes, I'm worried about the way music is treated in my country, but I asked him about his experience because it's like music doesn't matter anymore, we're not taking care of it. We have to take the best care and we are not doing it, and you are surviving and fighting, but I'm worried. I wanted to know your opinion on this.
DL: That is right, we're all worried, everything is upside down, and mixed up, and the air, the environment, the people, the politics, it's a very difficult period.
MA: It's something systemic, right?
DL: It's systemic, yeah, and hopefully it will get better, but it's really not a good time. But for some people it's a great time and things are too... it's chaotic, it's impossible, it's news every minute, I mean, now we see the world because of a computer, we used to only know, you knew [what happened in] Madrid, maybe, now everything is, in ten minutes the whole world is in your hand, on your phone, and that's what's going on, too much information. But we can't control it, because now you can get the information in ten minutes, so it's a problem.

© Mirian Arbalejo

My gratitude to Dave Liebman, Gonzalo del Val and Cristina Moreno.


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