Coltrane Devotee Dave Liebman Goes Strong on Trane Tribute ‘Selflessness’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Of today’s living saxophonists we likely most associate Pharoah Sanders (tenor), Archie Shepp (teno,r), and Dave Liebman (soprano) with the legendary, influential John Coltrane.  Selflessness, performed by Liebman and his working band, Expansions Quintet, marks his sixth recording in tribute to his muse.  The release comes a day preceding the NEA Jazz Master’s 75th birthday. While the title bears the same name as one of Coltrane’s releases, its selections are classics drawn from several Coltrane albums.

Liebman, long acknowledged as a true master of the soprano sax, mostly plays his trademark instrument while joined by multi-reedist Matt Vashlishan, pianist and keyboardist Bobby Avery, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Alex Ritz, with some of these members authoring new arrangements of Coltrane classics.  They begin with “Mr. Day,” not the most known of Coltrane’s compositions, recorded in September 1960 for Roulette and again for Atlantic a month later. Roulette’s original release was called “One and Four.” That title referenced the bass ostinato which hist son beats one and four.  However, drummer Ritz arranged it alternating bars of 6/4 and 4/4, colloquially referred to as ‘Big 5’. Vashlishan’s solos over a 4/4, Avey, Ritz, and Liebman then over the “Big 5.” “Compassion” takes on a more contemporary sheen as Leibman’s players contribute to the haunting mood set with Vashlishan on wind synthesizer and Avey on his Vintage Vibe, and electric piano that looks like a Wurlitzer but sounds more like a Fender Rhodes. These instruments were played frequently on Liebman’s most recent outing with his unit, 2020’s Earth, covered on these pages.

An extended piano solo leads into the eminently recognizable “My Favorite Things,” here slightly slowed to a tempo of 4 before Liebman and Vashlishan soar in their solos. Toward the end the two render the melody together in beautiful unison. “Ole,” like the former, a title in Coltrane’s Atlantic period, was the master’s arrangement of a Spanish folk song, even though Atlantic credited the composition to him as companies were wont to do during the time. Here, Leibman retreats to the origins of the song by playing his wooden flute and Ritz adopts a frame drum. Avey’s keyboard evokes a guitar-like distortion effect, and in another twist, Vashlishan plays clarinet. “Lazy Bird” is a Vashlishan arrangement, introducing a new chord structure and Cuban-like rhythm.

The combination of Liebman’s soprano and Vashlishan’s flute color the poignant “Peace on Earth,” the first in a sequence of more spiritual pieces, interrupted by “One Up, One Down” where the fiery exchanges between Liebman’s soprano and Ritz’s drums nod to the explosive duo exchanges of Trane and Elvin Jones, a new concept to jazz at those times. The title track is emblematic of Trane’s burgeoning interest in Eastern religions, re-arranged by Avey with a funky, rather disjointed drum pattern to add further intrigue to the various solos from each member, Avey’s being especially explorative. They conclude with the most spiritual of pieces, “Dear Lord,” as Marino shines initially in his unaccompanied bowed bass spot, followed by Vashlishan’s flute melody which Liebman improvises in and around while Avey’s electronics form the gorgeous atmospheric backdrop for this warm interpretation. 

Liebman and Expansions brilliantly pay tribute while invoking Coltrane’s spirit through varied instrumentation, inventive arrangements, and some well-placed surprises.

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