On the sax, he’s a mas­ter

Dave Lieb­man of­fers lessons in vir­tu­os­ity and ad­ven­tur­ous band lead­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Kirk Sils­bee cal­en­dar@latimes.com

Though he’s worked in Los An­ge­les since 1972, when he played on drum­mer Elvin Jones’ “Live at the Light­house” al­bum, sax­o­phon­ist Dave Lieb­man doesn’t visit of­ten. Fri­day, his first of two nights at Vitello’s in Stu­dio City, was an ob­ject les­son in in­stru­men­tal vir­tu­os­ity and ad­ven­tur­ous band lead­ing. The evening was a re­minder that at­ten­dance at ev­ery Lieb­man ap­pear­ance is manda­tory.

He may re­vert to the tenor sax on oc­ca­sion, but Lieb­man has con­cen­trated so in­tently on the so­prano sax­o­phone that he’s one of the few truly in­di­vid­ual stylists on that dif­fi­cult in­stru­ment. The Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts re­cently named him a Jazz Mas­ter award re­cip­i­ent for 2011. The recog­ni­tion is ex­cep­tional; most re­cip­i­ents are past their best per­form­ing days. Lieb­man not only per­forms reg­u­larly, but he also shows no sign of peak­ing.

The Lieb­man Quar­tet has been to­gether for 20 years; its ju­nior mem­ber, the ex­u­ber­ant drum­mer Marko Marcinko, has been on­board for 10. It’s a band with a prob­ing, pan-stylis­tic ap­proach to ma­te­rial. Lieb­man’s orig­i­nals cover a wide range of forms, and when the band oc­ca­sion­ally es­says a stan­dard, it does so in a novel way. The group al­ways seems to have an­other mu­si­cal card to play.

Lieb­man’s high-pitched so­prano dug into “Match­less,” which had a stac­cato theme with a whiplash turn­around. Even on a rhythm tune with a bright tempo, he took care to shape the notes. They curled and bil­lowed, thick with tone. On Or­nette Cole­man’s haunt­ing “Lonely Woman,” he picked up a small wooden recorder and like­wise bent the notes that con­clude the liq­uid phrases. Lieb­man’s so­prano played a lazy uni­son voic­ing with the gui­tar for ex­tended blues ex­plo­ration and then lac­er­ated an­gu­lar lines against Marcinko’s crash­ing drums on “Dream of Night.” A pip­ing recorder in­tro­duc­tion to an un­named orig­i­nal in­stantly con­jured a Peru­vian mood.

The met­ric verve Lieb­man dis­played dur­ing his unac­com­pa­nied in­tro­duc­tion to “Night in Tu­nisia” sug­gested a rhythm sec­tion in his head. While some tunes, by virtue of their struc­ture, are near im­pos­si­ble to cam­ou­flage, this stan­dard was clev­erly re­designed with har­monic al­ter­ations and un­usual phras­ing. The band steers clear of the ob­vi­ous, es­pe­cially on a warhorse.

Vic Juris is an un­clas­si­fi­able gui­tar vir­tu­oso. He sup­plies sweep­ing chords on the elec­tric model that res­onate and hang in the air, brush­ing in back­drops. He works hand-in-glove with Tony Marino’s melodic elec­tric bass lines. As a soloist, Juris will strum and pick out-of-tempo notes that play tag with the beat or he’ll un­coil lines that cut across the beat. On a ny­lon-string acous­tic gui­tar that also fed into the am­pli­fier, he flat-picked fil­i­gree on “Lonely Woman.” En­thu­si­as­tic ap­plause from gui­tar great John Pisano at a nearby ta­ble re­in­forced Juris’ sta­tus.

Though the dy­nam­ics could rise to crescendo pitch, the vol­ume never reached a level of pain. Gui­tar and bass ac­counted for a low de­gree of elec­tric hum, but when Lieb­man used a pitch-al­ter­ing de­vice clipped onto his so­prano, the over­tones and brief feed­back marred an oth­er­wise mar­velous two sets.

Through­out, Marcinko was a re­source­ful fount of time, rhyth­mic in­ven­tion and va­ri­ety of sound. He drove the band and pushed against the soloists; his drum breaks served as tran­si­tions be­tween tunes. He wrung sounds and tones out of the en­tire kit and added strings of bells and shells for added tex­ture. Like Lieb­man and the oth­ers, Marcinko never cruised, not even for a mea­sure.

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