The most striking thing about the recent release Petite Fleur: The Music of Sidney Bechet
is the sound of Dave Liebman's soprano saxophone on the opening title track, Bechet's best-known composition. That sound is large and pungent, with each held note featuring a bold and tightly wound vibrato--a far cry from the looser, more urgent sound, often leaning provocatively in and out of a given tone, that we've come to expect from Liebman.
Sidney Bechet was among the earliest of jazz stars and a virtuoso clarinetist as well. No one played soprano saxophone quite like him. "His sound is a giant wave amplitude form, and it can just bowl you over," Liebman says over the phone. "There are a few ways of producing vibrato on the instrument. The most subtle one is with the lips, the most flexible is with the jaw, but Bechet's way, which creates an almost operatic voice, comes from deep down in the stomach. And he was able to do it with remarkable force, speed and consistency."
That indelible sound was a natural starting point for Liebman, who intended this CD, in duet with guitarist John Stowell, as a meditation on Bechet's legacy. "Of course, nobody can truly play the way Bechet did," Liebman says, "so I just wanted to evoke a little of his sound, to tip my hat at the start."
It's doubtful that Liebman, who is 71 and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2011, would imitate Bechet even if he could. He boasts a considerable jazz legacy of his own, having played on some 500 recordings (200 of them as leader or co-leader) that span jazz, rock, world and chamber music. He stands as a modern master of the soprano sax, the instrument first popularized by Bechet and brought back into favor in the 1960s by John Coltrane. Aside from Steve Lacy's dedicated mastery and Wayne Shorter's acclaimed doubling on the instrument, and despite resurgent interest among younger players, the soprano sax has been mostly an outlier in jazz. Liebman's sound on it is distinctive, too, yet in stark contrast to Bechet's. Liebman recalls Lacy once telling him, "You like to play in the corners." That sounds about right. Where Bechet was delcarative and relentlessly bold, Liebman plays suggestively and with great dynamic range. He likes to toy with the nuances of color and shading around the edges of each tone.
In Liebman's autobiography, Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist: Musical Thoughts and Realities
, one of several books he's written, he mentions that he was trying "to tame that beast" when he decided more than 30 years ago to put down his tenor sax and flute to focus on the soprano saxophone. He first picked one up in 1969, right before joining Elvin Jones' band, while playing in Ten Wheel Drive, a jazz-infused rock band. Once he joined Miles Davis' band, Liebman found that the soprano cut through the loud density of Miles early '70s sound. "And there was something more," he says. "I felt like the lessons I learned from Miles translated best to soprano. Miles had an immediate sound, more like gestures, and the soprano has a more immediate sound, more like a trumpet, then the alto or tenor."
Liebman says Petite Fleur
was inspired by Bechet's memoir, Treat it Gentle
. In that book, Bechet rhapsodized about the origins and meaning of the early 20th-century New Orleans music--what he referred to as "the long song that started back there in the South." "You have to remember, musicians like Bechet were reporting back to civilization what they were thinking and feeling," Liebman says. "They were on the ground floor of starting something but also reaching back into the past." Along with Louis Armstrong, Bechet introduced the world to the concept of extended individualized jazz solos; his were so fully formed as to sound complete, like satisfying songs withing songs. "I knew what a great soloist Bechet was," Liebman says, "but once I got down to researching this recording, what really surprised me was how wonderful Bechet's writing was. I didn't bargain for that. He was quite the composer. Usually, when I record an album of someone else's music, I do a certain amount of re-arranging. But here the music was too strong already. He was a true melodicist."
Bechet's blues-based compositions and the bittersweet yet soaring quality of his melodies offer fine vehicles for Liebman's inclinations, which have always involved a spiritually infused emotionalism. With Stowell's chords forming a solid groove, Liebman turns Bechet's "Creole Blues" into a dramatic centerpiece. The dialogue between Liebman and Stowell throughout enables the two to transcend eras; on songs like "When the Sun Sets Down South" and "Passport," they move gracefully from a counterpoint that would have fit right in during Bechet's day to interlaced lines that speak of bebop and more modern-jazz improvisation.
Bechet's "Petite Fleur" gets three readings: first as a flowing duet; second, somewhat deconstructed by Stowell playing solo acoustic guitar; last (the final track), with Liebman on piano, painting the song's chords with touches of dissonance. The lone composition not written by Bechet here is Gershwin's "Summertime," which was Bechet's commercial breakthrough as a soloist, as recorded in 1939 for the then-fledgling Blue Note label. Liebman begins and ends in rubato, with the airy tones of a wood flute; in between, he swings it firmly yet softly on soprano, as if heeding Bechet's instruction to "treat it gentle."
In the decades since Liebman left Miles Davis' band and found his true voice on soprano saxophone, he has championed not only his chosen instrument but also the unfettered, forward-leaning approach to music that Davis espoused. Here, he leans back into a distant past with no less a sense of discovery. Bechet put it best in his memoir: "A musician could be playing it in New Orleans, or Chicago, or New York; he could be playing it in London, in Tunis, in Paris, in Germany. No matter where it's played, you gotta hear it starting way before you. ... It's the remembering song. There's so much to remember."