Saxophonist Dave Liebman returns to Philadelphia in a supporting role.
The custom in Jewish households in the 1950s and ’60s when Dave Liebman was growing up was for children to learn to play an instrument as part of their basic education.
Back then, television was barely making a blip in their lives. Music, be it classical, show tunes, rock or jazz, was a much bigger deal.
Living in Brooklyn, Liebman, who would go on to become one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation — and who is still going strong at 69 — was typical. Still, he didn’t get his first choice right away.
“I played piano at the insistence of my parents,” said Liebman, who’ll be playing second fiddle — so to speak — when the Charles Evans Quartet performs Sept. 18 at the Art Alliance, sponsored by Ars Nova Workshop. “They said, ‘If you want to play something else you need to take at least two yearsof piano.’
“It was the wisest decision my family ever made for me. Then I played clarinet for a year, before I got a chance to go for the sax. I was a rock ’n’ roll fanatic and had heard early on the sax was a very dominant instrument.”
Certainly it has been through the years with Liebman on the horn. Recipient of numerous awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, in addition to being a two-time Grammy nominee and inductee into the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame, Liebman has become a legend.
Returning to Philadelphia, which has a rich jazz history and where he’s performed on several occasions — at the Painted Bride and, most recently, at the World Café Live — is special. Returning to play alongside Evans is carrying on a tradition that has become a hallmark of jazz.
“He was my student nearly 20 years ago,” explained Liebman, who’s been living in the Poconos — which has become a jazz musicians’ haven — the past 30 years. “He dedicated a piece to me, inspired by things I taught him. Mentor playing with mentee is very common in jazz. It’s very historic going back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
“It’s fun to be on the same stage with somebody you played with, as I did with Miles Davis.”
Liebman was just getting started in the business when he joined the famed trumpeter’s company. “I was with him a year and a half, from ’73 to ’74,” said Liebman, whose expertise is soprano sax, which physically resembles a clarinet. “It’s the top of food chain as an apprentice.
“As a saxophone player, you’re stepping into the shoes of John Coltrane and other people. Since then, I collaborated with groups and started playing my own music. To be with Miles Davis was a lesson in how to lead a band and how to handle the crazy personalities.”
Describing his own personality, Liebman says he’s neither too high-strung nor too laid back. “I’m the middle matzah, ready to be eaten,” he laughed. “The biggest change is the education. They’re learning music from books rather than actual bandstands. The opportunity to play live has gone down. At the same time, the talent pool has grown enormously. So we have this great number of musicians dressed for the party with nowhere to go.”
Charlie Evans, though, can thank Liebman for his party. He enthused that playing alongside him is “a dream come true.” “He really is No. l on the soprano sax,” said the 37-year-old Evans, who welcomes a chance to return to town, after studying at the University of the Arts. “There’s no one like him on that instrument.
“He has the ability to be both a top-level performer and a top-level teacher. He’s very caring and giving. Jazz uses the term ‘apprenticeship.’ Dave worked with Alvin Jones and Miles Davis when he was young, Now, he looks to people like me and the younger generation to pass on the torch and give back.
“Playing with Liebman and playing music I wrote and worked on in Philly is coming full circle.”
For Liebman, who’ll join Evans, Tony Martino on bass and Ron Stabinsky on piano in an unusual quartet that won’t use any drums — usually a jazz staple — it’s just as meaningful, “Charlie’s music is quite avant garde,” said Liebman, whose resume also includes publishing a number of books on jazz and instructional videos, as well as his 2012 autobiography What It Is: the Life of a Jazz Artist. “It’s not Sholom Aleichem. It’s not even straight ahead jazz. It’s challenging to listen to and to play.”
But since he was a little boy in Brooklyn learning the piano, Dave Liebman has always welcomed challenges. “I’ve been playing music since I was a kid,” said Liebman, who often contributes to Temple Israel of the Poconos in Stroudsburg. “I definitely keep improving and my peers continue to refine themselves. When you do something over and over, you get better at it.”