Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group – The Puzzle [TrackList follows] – Whaling City Sound

Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group – The Puzzle [TrackList follows] – Whaling City Sound wcs075, 65:38 [9/11/15] [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

(Bobby Avey – acoustic piano, electric keyboard, editor; Alex Ritz – drums, frame drum; Matt Vashlishan – clarinet, flute, alto saxophone, straw, EWI, mixer, mastering; Tony Marino – acoustic & electric bass; Dave Liebman – soprano saxophone, wooden recorder, arranger (tracks 4, 11))

On the 65-minute The Puzzle saxophonist Dave Liebman and his current quintet Expansions pick up where they left off from their last outing, Samsara (Whaling City Sound, 2014). Samsara showed a band which embraced challenges, keeping the music alive and creative. During The Puzzle’s 11 tracks Liebman (on soprano sax and wooden recorder), Bobby Avey (acoustic piano and electric keyboard), drummer Alex Ritz, multi-reedist Matt Vashlishan (clarinet, flute, alto saxophone, straw, EWI) and bassist Tony Marino (who uses both electric and acoustic basses) incorporate the idea of a musical puzzle into adventurous areas, exploring, reassembling and otherwise pulling apart the mystery of jazz improvisation and composition. Despite the heady material, though, the five musicians strive for music which engages, stimulates and holds listeners’ attention.

The program is split between individual originals (two by Marino; four by Liebman; one by Avey; two by Vashlishan) and two covers. The opener, Vashlishan’s “Hat Trick,” certainly corresponds to the album’s thematic aesthetic. In the liner notes, Vashlishan explains how the piece was formed by randomly selecting a melodic order and the material from a hat, and (in reference to the sports term about achieving a feat three times in a row), his composition consists of three different lines made from the same melodic fabric by means of dissimilar rhythms between saxes, piano and bass. The intricate number has a fast tempo, and while the bass, piano and twin saxes seemingly rush in diverse directions, everyone meets up at the end. On the other hand, Vashlishan’s beautiful ballad, “Sailing” (no relation to Rod Stewart’s pop hit) is less intellectual and more instinctual. This tune was initially done in 2009 (when it won an ASCAP award) and conceived for alto sax, guitar, bass and drums, but fits well into a quintet configuration spotlighting flute and electric keyboard, and provides a bit of a fusion taste.

The album’s cerebral entertainment relationship comes to the fore during Liebman’s title track, which he states gets its designation from the experience of playing through the harmonies derived from the question and answer melodic statement. This isn’t an easy tune to absorb. It begins with Avey’s loud, dissonant chords and a skewed cadence, followed by a progression of blues-tinted Liebman solos, and as the number grows more forceful Vashlishan kicks it up a notch on his alto sax with bop-esque lines. The veering variations may throw some listeners off, but the journey is worth the bumpy ride. A different kind of rhythmic complexity is at the root of “Off Flow,” which Liebman recorded on his 1992 record, Turn It Around. That version had guitar and sax, while this new rendition takes advantage of two horns. The slightly off-center rhythmic impression was inspired by Brazilian artist Hermeto Pascoal, and like other tunes on this CD, there’s a sense of fragments streaming independently and coming together. The shortest cut, “Off and Off,” also has a convoluted construction, applying a 12-tone row ranged among the instruments in a contrapuntal approach which utilizes a melody with replications which serve as the basis for group collaboration.

Not all the tracks conform to the puzzle theme. Avey’s folk-like “Continues to Ignore” is about apathy, specifically the obliviousness of many to Haiti’s tragic history and the current condition of the island nation. Using rhythms and concepts borrowed from Haitian percussionists, Avey and the Expansions quintet build a lengthy and expressive declaration for understanding, peace and communal empathy. A different motivation fuels Marino’s “For J.A.,” which was penned for Philly-based pianist Jimmy Amadie (who passed away in 2013), who was Marino’s muse and mentor, a friend who taught Marino nothing can stop an artist from reaching a goal, no matter the obstacle or pain. Like the other tunes, there is much harmonic interaction and rhythmic exchanges.

The two covers display the group’s ability to modify other composers’ work and put a unique stamp on them. The fivesome put a fun, upbeat spin on Todd Dameron and Count Basie’s “Good Bait,” which was popular in the 1940s and 1950s (previous versions were done by Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, John Coltrane and others). On “Good Bait” the rhythm changes are accomplished by way of two keys, and act as an establishing point for group discourse. The CD closes with “Danse de la Fureur” (translation: “Dance of Fury”), which is a prominent and very modern transformation of an excerpt from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. This tune has a churning, electronic-laced drive powered by digital manipulation, Ritz’s skewed percussion and a pulsing rhythmic groove via the horns, drums and bass. It’s a dark and nearly brutal finish, and also unforgettable.

TrackList: Hat Trick; For J.A.; Vendetta; Good Bait; Sailing; The Puzzle; Off Flow; Continues to Ignore; Off and Off; The Thing that Wouldn’t Leave; Danse de la Fureur.

—Doug Simpson

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