I expected to dislike this new Scarecrow Press because it chronicles a jazz player whose musical vision begins where mine ends. Liebman worked and recorded with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis in the Seventies and has gone on into a variety of free jazz / electric jazz projects.
I began reading as an obligation but found myself fascinated by the development of an improvising artist — a bright Jewish Brooklyn boy stricken with polio before he had entered school, receiving piano lessons because they were a mark of upper-class cultured life, becoming a saxophonist gigging in Catskills resorts at fourteen, discovering John Coltrane live at Birdland in 1962 . . . .
Unlike some musicians whose energy seems primarily musical, Liebman has sharp recall (or novelistic skills), a sense of humor, and the ability to articulate his perceptions. Thus there are strongly-realized portraits of Elvin Jones and “the Prince of Darkness,” Miles — who, at one point, had a large 1970 photographic portrait of himself and Louis hung over his couch. (Liebman’s insights into Miles are intriguing: he portrays Miles as bored and even shy . . . which will give the Davis-idolators something to ponder.)
Liebman has a good deal to say about his colleagues — occasionally unsparing, although he is candid about his own shortcomings. He is perceptive about the Masters — Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, and Cannonball Adderley are summed up in several thoughtful, witty pages, once again proving that musicians are often the best critics of their own art.
I came to admire the book as I read, and I am paying it the best tribute I can by giving it away — to a new young friend, a saxophonist from Santa Cruz, who will also — as I did — learn from Liebman. I applaud Scarecrow for publishing such an in-depth portrait, and only wish (wistfully) that someone had been able to sit down with, say, Brew Moore or Benny Morton or a hundred others. But this book is a model of what can be done to illuminate jazz from the inside as well as chronicling one artist’s passage through it.
Here you can find out more about WHAT IT IS, which I am sure is available in the usual online places.