Sometimes the fusion of jazz with classical music can result in the bite being taken out of both genres. Over the years there have been many examples of such an unhappy union. However, there have been some attempts that have proved to be more successful. Gunther Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” almost sixty years ago when he drew together jazz luminaries of the time Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans and Jim Hall and paired them with the Contemporary String Quartet for the album ‘Jazz Abstractions’. Earlier, in 1957, the arch-serialist Milton Babbitt produced ‘All Set’ for a jazz ensemble that included Charles Mingus and Bill Evans and which was dedicated to Gunther Schuller. However, the piece that many think of as perhaps the first melding of jazz with classical music came in 1945 when Igor Stravinsky wrote the ‘Ebony Concerto’ for clarinettist Woody Herman. This was merely Stravinsky’s impression of jazz and there is not a moment of improvisation in the score.
More recently, Uri Caine has made great creative use of the possibilities afforded by reflecting upon the classical repertoire through a jazz lens. In 2017 pianist Bill Cunliffe released ‘BACHanalia’ and fellow pianist Brad Mehldau released ‘After Bach’ in 2018. July this year will see the release by British saxophonist Mark Lockheart of a collection of English church music. The latest in a long line of such musical fusions is this offering from Liebman and Beirach. New York saxophonist Liebman began taking classical piano lessons at the age of nine and by the time he was twelve was already working to master the saxophone. He credits seeing John Coltrane performing live at many venues around New York City as the starting point of a life-long affinity with jazz. Liebman was later to work in the group of one-time Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones.
The saxophonist’s association with pianist Beirach dates back to the early 1970s when they formed the group Lookout Farm, recording for the famed ECM label and A&M Records and undertaking tours of the U.S., Canada, India, Japan and Europe. Later they began working as a duo and in 1981 formed the group Quest. Beirach, also a native of New York, studied jazz and classical music. Both men have studied with the legendary jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. His piano style shows the influence of Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea and is also informed by his earlier classical training. Our intrepid duo first recorded together in 1975 on the album ‘Forgotten Fantasies’ which saw the saxophonist employing the then fashionable echoplex and phase shifter to add a new dimension to his prowess on the saxophone.
The current album is an altogether different affair, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of these two meeting, playing and recording music together. This two-CD set consists of seventeen masterpieces of classical music opening with a very delicate interpretation of Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 23, 2nd Movement’ and continues with pieces by Beethoven, Bach, Faure and Scriabin amongst others together with one piece each from both performers. The second disk is devoted to interpretations of various string quartets by Bartok and displays Liebman’s tenor saxophone in all its glory. The pianist references Bartok as a major influence on his language of modern jazz piano. It is impossible to pick musical highlights from this recording as each piece brings its own special gifts. The piano, as one would expect, is beautifully recorded and Liebman is especially effective on soprano saxophone. In addition to his customary tenor saxophone, we also get to hear C-flute. The recordings were all done in a studio in an old house in the forest of Zerkall near Nideggen, Germany. Beirach contributes an informative and detailed booklet note.
Don’t be at all concerned if you are not familiar with all of the original source material from which these improvisations are constructed, just simply sit back and enjoy the music. This is clearly a labour of love for the performers and is truly life-enhancing for the listener.