The Grammy-nominated Dave Liebman Big Band will pay tribute to jazz master John Coltrane at the Nittany Lion Inn on Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the boundary-pushing musician’s death.
Coltrane inspired generations of musicians through his work with free jazz, which replaces fixed elements of jazz with improvisation, and Liebman is no exception.
“The first time I saw Coltrane was in 1962,” he said. “I was 15 years old in a club called Birdland in New York. ... I saw that and it was a different world. It was voodoo, it was dark, it was a subculture and it was romantic.”
Liebman said it was Coltrane’s energy and honesty that inspired him the most.
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“You can’t play like that and not be sincere,” he said.
The Big Band, under the direction of Gunnar Mossblad, will play Coltrane’s masterworks at the concert and the set will include about 12 songs. The songs will be arranged, but include segments of improvisation throughout the show.
“Coltrane’s renowned as one of the most influential people in the history of jazz,” Mossblad said.
Coltrane died when he was 40 years old, but in his short career he played alongside all-time greats including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
“He made more contributions in that short time than anyone else has,” Mossblad said.
Mossblad not only directs the band, but plays saxophone simultaneously. He said playing his part perfectly while also paying attention to everything else is actually quite challenging, but it’s easier because of good musicians around him.
Free jazz depends on good musicians to figure things out as they go.
“To play what is known as free jazz, you have to be open to your partners. You have to want to converse,” Liebman said. There are ongoing conversations within the performances, he added, and it’s a constant back and forth.
Mossblad said jazz is a performer’s art form, not a composer’s. The magic is in the moment when two or more players are riffing off of each other and trying new things.
Liebman has been a musician since he was 9 years old, when he began taking classical piano lessons. Soon switching to saxophone, which he says feels like “an extension” of himself, he learned to play on his own. In the 1970s, Liebman formed Free Life Communication, a group of a few dozen young musicians in New York City.
Later in the ’70s, Liebman got a chance to record with Davis, who hired him to play on his songs “Get Up with It” and “On the Corner.” A few decades later, the Big Band formed in 2000.
Through his years of experience, Liebman is unmatched in his knowledge of Coltrane, Mossblad said. The books he has written on jazz are used by classical composers as a guide because of how well organized the approach is, he added. Playing some of the most well-regarded jazz music in history doesn’t phase Liebman at all.
“For me, (Coltrane) was everything. It’s going home,” he said.
The band has released three albums together and received critical acclaim. Their rendition of Jim McNeely’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” was nominated for a Grammy in 2004. Tickets are being sold at the door for $20 general admission. They are $15 for Penn State faculty and $5 for Penn State students.
The full band includes saxophonists Mossblad, Charles Pillow, Dave Riekenberg, Tom Christensen and Jay Brandford; trumpeters Bob Millikan, Brian Pareschi, Stuart Mack and Patrick Dorian; and trombonists Tim Sessions, Scott Reaves, Sam Burtis and Jeff Nelson. The band also features pianist Jim Ridl, guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko.
James Turchick is a Penn State journalism student.
IF YOU GO
- What: Dave Liebman Big Band
- When: 6 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Nittany Lion Inn grand ballroom, University Park
- Info: music.psu.edu