Jazz Times: December 2001

Hearsay/Steuart Liebig

By Aaron Steinberg


What would it sound like if Count Basie asked Stravinsky to write some charts? Pomegranate (Cryptogramophone), the new release by Steuart Liebig.   A chamber ensemble runs through Liebig's tightly marshaled, fractured arrangements on the CD: French hornist Tom Varner dances over and through Liebig's harmonic thicket; bassist Mark Dresser's roiling sea or arco overtones acts as a pivot point for successive waves of duos' electric guitarist Nels Cline churns distortion clouds alongside chirping flutes and clarinets.

How Liebig ended up with Pomegranate is not entirely clear, considering he began his music career splitting time between his rock band and stints in the not especially compatible bands of Julius Hemphill and Les McCann. The recording consists of four long pieces scored for a chamber ensemble populated by frequent Liebig collaborators: he composed the first two with Varner and Dresser in mind, while saving the final two for SoCal improvisers Vinny Golia and Cline. "It was a very intense process," say Liebig of Pomegranate . "Basically it took about a year from inception. I'm really pleased that I actually finished it."

Liebig, who conducts large sections of Pomegranate , did not save himself any sol time. If you hear him a tall, it's playing ostinatos or short descending bass lines beneath chords changes. Lest you think he's all pencil and no play, however, cross-reference Pomegranate with the rumbling Antipodes (Cadence). His other new recording features his free improvising trio including multireedist Golia and drummer Billy Mintz) on material that's the inverse of Liebig's 300-measure Pomegranate scores.

"I like doing that band because it flexes different muscles for me. The tunes are nowhere near the complexity. But I don't want people to thank all I do is write," he says.

Antipodes exposes not only Liebig's improvisation skills but also his unusual take on an instrument uncommon in free-improv settings - - or classical/jazz fusion for that matter. Liebig's six-string electric gives him a range that stretches from the bottom of a typical bass guitar through the low end of a guitar's, and he takes advantage of it. More than once Liebig's playing alone has been mistaken as a two-person attack, presumably with some uncredited phantom player. He has also cultivated an airy, wide sound that borrows characteristics from electric and acoustic instruments.

"The guys who are the real names on the instrument use a lot of treble and play with a real clicky sound," say Liebig. "They also play with a very pointed attack, which doesn't really diffuse. That's what I like about acoustic, it lays out a bigger footprint. On an acoustic, though, a lot of times the decay is faster. The (thing about the six-string) electric bass is that it's somewhere between a guitar, an acoustic bass, an electric and a cello. I have all this expanded range and it gives me a lot of orchestral capabilities. On [ Antipodes ] I'm doing stuff that's much more guitaristic up in the cello range. I think I'm veering pretty far away from standard electric bass practice."

Pic Used for JazzTimes Article