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Jazz review: Dave Liebman with his quartet at Vitello's

September 27, 2010 |  7:51 am

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, he 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 (who hosts Vitello’s guitar night Mondays) 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. Juris and Liebman may employ electronic toys but never as gimmicks. They only expand sonic vocabulary.

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.

-- Kirk Silsbee