Master of Jazz Fusion Gets His Due

August 27, 2010 - NEW YORK TIMES


WHEN the National Endowment for the Arts gives the 2011 N.E.A. Jazz Masters Award to the saxophonist David Liebman in January, it will represent more to him than a personal achievement. It will also mark the establishment’s de facto validation of the fusion aesthetic, he said, because few, if any, of the 118 other award recipients since 1982 have been as strongly identified with fusion and its challenge to mainstream jazz conventions as he has.

“It got a really bad rap for years, the fusion thing, no question about it. Miles got killed for it,” he said, referring to Miles Davis. “Suddenly it’s become the holy grail. ‘Oh boy, he was there before everyone.’ Of course he was. We knew that.”

Mr. Liebman’s defense of 1970s fusion will be reflected in his appearances over the next few months, including one on Sept. 19 at the Turning Point in Piermont. He and his longtime working band — Vic Juris on guitar, Tony Marino on electric bass and Marko Marcinko on drums — will be employing more of the tone and textures he developed nearly 40 years ago with his own groups, like Lookout Farm, and the Davis-led bands that recorded “On the Corner” and “Get Up With It.”

“I’m kind of entering a new stage with the band: a little bit more electronic, a little bit more free, back to only soprano — putting the tenor down for a while,” he said.

Whatever direction Mr. Liebman is taking at any moment — and over the years he has explored jazz of the free, fusion, straight-ahead and various European schools, in addition to his special brand of world music — he reveals certain constants. He takes, for example, the impressionistic view of melody: he breaks up a theme from the first note and makes it his own.

At the same time, he makes the case for the horn as a band’s prime mover — a view he came to hold more strongly watching Davis take control onstage with his trumpet. “Standing next to him even in the midst of the stuff we played, which was certainly not melodic or in song form, it didn’t matter, because you could still see the way he transformed something and set the mood for the listeners and, most importantly, for the band.”

That attitude, he said, will be evident in his set at the Turning Point, whether he is playing an original or “Lonely Woman,” the haunting classic on “Turnaround: The Dave Liebman Group Plays Ornette Coleman.” Voted the 2010 record of the year by German jazz writers, the album probes the mind of another horn player who upended jazz conventions of his day — and found his ideas validated years later by the N.E.A.