Steuart Liebig has championed creative improvised music in Southern California for more than a decade. Seeing him in a live performance, you quickly realize that his ensembles are all about teamwork and cohesiveness. His passion spreads all around the room as Liebig and his bandmates explore each theme with a fresh aura. It's contagious. Before long, you find yourself stomping and tapping to the music as it winds its way through powerfully built themes and highly rhythmic episodes.
On Quicksilver, each member of Liebig's improvising quartet works collectively as well as individually. As leader, the bassist encourages each of his partners through interaction in their ensemble setting. They explore his written themes and follow his rough guidelines, while adding parallel statements of their own.
He takes his turn at the solo mic with expressive tirades that range from bombastic to downright eerie. A veteran bassist, Liebig worked with Les McCann for three years and moved in and out of various rock bands for a time. It's his experience with Julius Hemphill, however, that seems to have made the largest impact on the bassist's direction. Creative music takes to him naturally, with a world of fresh ideas at his feet.
Drummer Jeanette Kangas (formerly Jeanette Wrate) adds a powerful force to the quartet's voice on vibraphone. The mysticism of her vibes on the twelfth movement of "Mosaic" sets an incredibly dramatic tone. Elsewhere, she provides a dreamy quality that sets the mood appropriately. Three minutes into "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise," and again further on, she brings an intense and varied percussion quality to the ensemble that swings the unit, however briefly, with unquestionable fire.
Violinist Jeff Gauthier takes his time with a melody, stretching it out for maximum exposure and releasing it only when he's exhausted all of its energy. A highly charged artist with amazing technique, he provides the quartet with dynamism and flexibility. When he and flutist Ellen Burr move excitedly in unison, it's obvious that their relationship comes about intuitively. Without missing a step, the pair releases a long, exciting string of stretched ideas. They bring the sound of chamber music, as well, to this fascinating avant garde affair.
...Quicksilver has its fiery moments and pushes the envelope in new and exciting directions.
Jim Santella, allaboutjazz.com
Even for the most jaded heard-it-all-before types with their esteemed weird taste in music, Quicksilver, the latest release by composer/bassist Steuart Liebig, can perfectly personify anyone's musical freakishness. Beyond the requisite jewel case, tray card, booklet, and polycarbonate disc, there's almost nothing else normal about this CD. Just listen through a couple of the opening tracks, a collection of 23 short "mosaics," and think to yourself: Now I've heard everything.
The music defies description, taking elements from all over the musical map. Listen for unmarked buried treasures - - odd timbres, nonsensical outbursts, systematic melody lines that emerge more quirky than cold - - just don't expect to stay anywhere for too long. Like a long road trip, the details of this music will quickly fade from your memory, but at the end of it all you'll still have the satisfaction of having gone someplace.
There is something slightly uncomfortable about Quicksilver and it has to do with the fact that it basically consists of contemporary chamber music trying to break out of the box but not quite making it. A very talented improviser and jazzman with a ferocious electric bass playing, Steuart Liebig attempts to renovate the chamber-quartet format. The quartet consists of Ellen Burr on flutes, Jeff Gauthier on (electric) violin, Jeanette Kangas on percussion, and Liebig on electric contrabass guitars. If Gauthier's playing remains mostly anchored into the concert violin tradition, despite the amplification, Liebig's is strongly influenced by jazz and rock techniques. Sound-wise, the result is a four-legged beast attempting to walk straight while one leg is constantly going sideways. The other players, all very talented (Burr's phrasing is a delight), don't share the wildness and "out" quality of Liebig's approach. And this is also reflected in the bassist's writing. The 52-minute, 23-part suite "Mosaic" is a hodgepodge of conventional contemporary quartet motives and avant-jazz\rock licks. Liebig is good at developing melodic and harmonic ideas within short durations and the work as a whole displays good cohesion, elegance and flair, but it rests between two chairs. It makes for a challenging yet pleasant listen, but one comes out of it with the feeling that Liebig could have gone much further (Tim Brady, for instance, has been more radical -- and artistically successful -- at integrating the electric guitar to chamber music contexts). "Chrysanthemum" sounds even more awkward and, given the 80-minute duration of the album, could have been left out altogether. The last piece, "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise" is a different story. Here, Liebig and his group have shaken off much more of the contemporary ethos. Kangas' percussion work (mostly choked cymbals) is insistent and odd; Burr breaks off of her poise to blow a compelling Kirk-esque solo; and at last Liebig finds a balance between the seriousness of the quartet setting (four musicians sitting down in a circle) and the raucous edge his writing was aspiring to all along. François Couture, allmusic.com
Bassist/composer Steuart Liebig has been one of LA's most prolific jazz jugglers for years now. At any given time, he may have half a dozen bands in the air, a couple behind his back, and a few improvisational relationships on the side. Over the last decade, he's put out recordings on Nine Winds, Cryptogramophone, Cadence Jazz, and pfMentum, but his release schedule doesn't begin to keep up with his visitations with the muse.
In stark contrast to the bluesy bite of the Mentones' Locustland , Liebig's previous pfMentum outing, Minim's debut offers an almost chamber jazz approach to the listener. Instead of dropping improvisational sections into quasi-classical forms however, Liebig has created his own form in the opening number, "Mosaic," which clocks in at 51:38, and is "made up of 23 miniatures based on haiku." You can hear a variety of classical styles at work - - several bars of counterpoint here, a minimalist pulse over there - - but no one approach dominates and still the piece coheres.
More important than the specific structure, however, is the skill with which Liebig writes for his band members' strengths. That's not surprising where violinist Jeff Gauthier is concerned, since they've been collaborating for a long time, but flautist Ellen Burr and drummer/percussionist Jeanette Kangas (FKA Jeanette Wrate) come off equally well. Burr's remarkable range, from the purest tones to rampant Rahsaanisms, spiced with ethnic rhythms and tonal shadings, provide continuity, even when she's asked to blow her flutes all over the map. Kangas propels a maximum of momentum with a minimum of crash and bash. "Mosaic" isn't the only composition on the album. "Chrysanthemum" conveys a slowly moving landscape, sometimes arid, sometimes lush. "A Single Rosehip Bursts In Praise" is a dance piece where everyone solos over a percussive celebration that could've been borrowed from the rituals of Bali.
If much new music tries to be considered out of the box, this is new chamber music that is definitely out of the chamber.
Michael Davis, allaboutjazz.com
Steuart remains one of the finest bassists to emerge from the LA underground in the past decade, check out any his great discs on Nine Winds, Cadence Jazz or Cryptogramophone or his work with Nels and/or Alex Cline and you will see what I mean. Jeff Gauthier is another exceptional string player who runs Cryptogramophone and often works with many of the same players as Steuart. Ellen Burr is one of the four fine flutists to be featured on a recent Vinny Golia flute project disc. Haven't heard of Jeanette Kangas before this. "Mosaic" is a 52-minute epic work that is made of 23 miniatures pieces based on haiku. Each section features a complex array of intricate arrangements, well written and obviously difficult to play, yet never too dense. Steuart's incredible bass is often at the center of these intricate pieces, with equally demanding parts for the flute, violin and percussion, but often not at the same time. There are a number of impressive duo or trio sections as well. This music is in between modern classical and jazz, and is often stripped down or minimal, yet always interesting. Similar to John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet. In "Single Rosehip in Praise", Steuart's writing and the quartet's playing truly shine. Extremely delicate, with flute, violin and bass notes sliding intricately together, with devilishly difficult percussion underneath. Steuart has prepared his bass with assorted devices (alligator clips?), coming up with some twisted sounds on his bass, his solo, just extraordinary.
BLG, DMG Newsletter
I politely suggest starting with the last piece on the disc; in fact, most of the second half of "A single rosehip bursts in praise" is a heavy tour de force through heavier still percussion patterns that risks being skipped if listened at the end of an already demanding record. But Steuart Liebig's Minim quartet (Liebig on contrabass guitars, Ellen Burr on flutes, Jeanette Kangas on percussion, Jeff Gauthier on violins) is so skilled, the sheer force of their musicianships carries a physicality that makes even the most contorted counterpoints sound light and refreshing. The 23 sonic haikus forming "Mosaic" lean towards a modern school of "comprovisation" mixing freedom, Reich, Stravinsky and Braxton - plus additional influences you'll be able to hear yourselves - with an always open eye to well travelled technical shapes; "Chrysantemum" is another important statement of almost classical literature, where the multiform artistic culture of Minim trades previous urgencies with arcane suggestions and background connections. 80 minutes of this music must be listened with top attention and the most liberated brain you can wear that day - but the reward is a sure thing.
Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
Three pieces here. "Mosaic" is made up of 23 short pieces (called "miniatures" in the liners), all based on Haiku. "Chrysanthemum" is a "single movement in 14 parts." "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise" was written in collaboration with a dance company. Whew!
Like Jeff Kaiser, Liebig seems to specialize in highly-crafted music that sounds improvisational but, in fact, is not. There may be moments here and there, but these pieces sound tightly-written to me. They're played with energy and enthusiasm, of course, but I don't hear any flights of fancy.
And that's cool. These pieces are intended to challenge the listener, to make us hear more than we were expecting to hear. I like to talk about field trips to the frontal lobes, but this work is much more active than that. There's no spacing out here. Conscious, willful thought is required.
Works for me. The thee works here are distinct, but they are also quite obviously all written by the same hand. Liebig's work is sharp and twisting, commanding attention. Listening to this disc was exhausting, yet ultimately exhilarating. Quite the rush.
Aiding and Abbetting
Quicksilver is a recording of three extended improv tracks from Ellen Burr: flute, piccolo, alto flute, Jeff Gauthier: electric violins, Jeanette Kangas: drums, percussion, and vibraphone, and Steuart Liebig: prepared bass guitars. Of Quicksilver's tracks, Mosaic is a piece broken down into 23 seperate pieces, while the last track, Chrysanthemum, is one continous whole piece. Overall, the musical structure of the album is based on poetry - - a complex abstraction that is ambigious and challenging, yet rewarding.
Jeramy Ponder, JackalBlaster, Nov 2004
On this musical offering, I was treated to some very creative music and fabulous sounds. The album is composed of 25 tracks, in three actual [titled] songs. "Mosaic" is made up of 23 cuts and plays for almost 52 minutes. These 23 are miniatures--each a unique song. Each takes instrumental and experimental sounds to a new high. The arrangements are clever, daring, and unique. At times the music is more basic but the quality is high. This number composed of these 'miniatures' was truly something different and was enthusiastically consumed by my ears.
The second selection is cut #24 "Chrysanthemum"; this work runs for over 15 minutes. Very creative and very nice. The 3rd major work is cut #25, "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise." It tracks for over 12 minutes and closes out almost 80 minutes of very interesting music. It is great to hear electric violins mix with contrabass guitars along with wind instruments and percussion. This is real music although on the lighter side. A must for fans of instrumental sounds and recommended for those that like unique blends of instruments. A very enjoyable listen.
Armando Canales, The CRITICAL REVIEW Service
This work presents elements typical of Jazz, Classical, New Music, and Experimental Rock. There are slow themes and other lively ones. In the slow passages, the structure is fluid, not being limited to a few fixed chords. The instruments utilized are acoustic. There are some passages entirely devoted to experimentation with sounds.
VALERIANO GUIOL, amazings.com
Wie die Arbeiten von Jeff Kaiser hat auch STEUART LIEBIGs Quicksilver (pfMENTM CD 023) ein okkult-alchemistisches Unterfutter. Dafür steht nicht allein der merkuriale Titel, der unterirdische Fäden bis zu Hermes Trismegistos spinnt, auch die ominöse Zahl 23 verweist auf kryptische Schwingungen. Das 51-minütige ?Mosaic' besteht, wie auch Bobby Prevites 23 Constellations of Joan Miró, aus 23 Miniaturen, die wiederum alle von der Zahl 17 durchgeistert werden. Der Klangkörper, dem Liebig diese Kammermusik-Miniaturen auf den Leib geschrieben hat, ist die Improvising-Einheit Minim, die neben Liebig aus der Flötistin Ellen Burr, Jeff Gauthier an Electric Violins und der Percussionistin Jeanette Kangas besteht. Burr und Gauthier gehörten auch schon zu Kammerstig, dem Ensemble, mit dem der Bassist, Komponist & Bandleader Pomegranate (Cryptogramophone, 2001) aufgenommen hat. Seine besondere Betonung des kompositorischen Elements und seine Krpytophilie waren schon bei der 9Winds-Trilogie zu hören, die er in den 90ern mit seinem Quartetto Stig einspielte: Hommages Obliques (1993), Lingua Oscura (1995) und Pienso Oculto (1997). Liebigs Ansatz, kammermusikalische Konzepte, speziell die postmoderne Tradition eines Strawinsky und des Serialismus, zu verschmelzen mit selbständigen Spielweisen des ?Jazz', zeigt gewisse Parallelen zu den Herangehensweisen von Basskollegen wie Marten Altena und Mark Dresser, aber auch zum Intellektualismus eines Franz Koglmann, Michael Moore oder Vinny Golia. Neben den transparenten, quicken, reflektierten Quartettclashes, vier Soli sowie Trios und Duetten in wechselnden Konstellationen, in denen sich ?Mosaic' an das Silbenmaß von Haikus anlehnt, ist mit ?Chrysanthemums' eine viertelstündige Komposition enthalten, die auf den 14 zehnsilbigen Zeilen der Sonettform basiert. Das dritte Stück, das seinen Titel ?A Single Rosehip Bursts In Praise' aus dem Roman Art & Lies von Jeanette Winterson entlehnt, entstand im Kontext einer Tanzchoreographie und illustriert die Gedanken der drei handelnden Romanprotagonisten Händel, Sappho und Picasso während einer U-Bahnfahrt. Der kapriziöse Duktus der Musica Nova, das fragile Klangbild von Flöte, Violine und fingerspitzer Percussion und die feingeistige Konzeptlastigkeit in allen drei Parts von Quicksilver wird sehr eigenwillig ausbalanciert durch den besonderen Klang von Liebigs, teilweise präparierter, Kontrabassgitarre, dem Instrument, mit dem sich, wie Uli Trepte glaubt, perfekt die Synergie von Rhythmus & Melodie bewerkstelligen lässt.
[Steuart Liebig's Quicksilver (pfMENTUM CD 023), too, like the works of Jeff Kaiser, has an occult-alchemistic lining. This is represented not only by its mercurial title, which spins subterraneous threads all the way to Hermes Trismegistos; the ominous number 23 points to cryptic vibrations. The 51-minute 'Mosaic' consists-just like Bobby Previte's 23 Constellations of Joan Miro-of 23 miniatures, which then also are all haunted by the number 17. The soundbody (Klangkörper) for whom Liebig has custom tailored (lit.: written on the body) these chamber music-miniatures is the improvising unit Minim, which, apart from Liebig consists of the flutist Ellen Burr, Jeff Gauthier, an electric violinist, and percussionist Jeanette Kangas. Burr and Gauthier were also members of Kammerstig, the ensemble with whom the bassist, composer and bandleader has recorded Pomegranate (Cryptogramophone, 2001). His special emphasis of compositorial elements and his cryptophilia could already be heard in the 9Winds-Trilogy, which he recorded with his Quartetto Stig in the 90s: Hommages Obliques (1993), Lingua Oscura (1995) und Pienso Oculto (1997). Liebig's idea to fuse chamber music concepts , especially the postmodern tradition of Strawinsky and Serialism with the freestanding movements of 'Jazz' show parallels to the approaches of fellow bassists like Maarten Alteena and Mark Dresser, but also parallels the intellectualism of Franz Koglmann, Michael Moore or Vinny Golia. Next to the transparent, quick reflected Quartettclashes, four solos, as well as trios and duetts in changing constellations, in which 'Mosaic' plays on the metric rhythm of haikus, included is 'Chrysanthemum', a 15-minute composition which is based on the 14 tensyllabic lines of the sonnet. The third piece, which borrows its title 'A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise' from the novel Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson was created in the context of dance choreography and illustrates the thoughts of the three protagonists of the novel - - Händel, Sappho and Picasso - - during a subway ride. The capricious ductus of Musica Nova, the fragile soundpicture of flute, violin and tip of the fingers percussion and the heavy intellectual/artistic weight in all three parts of Quicksilver is balanced in a very individual way by the special sound of Liebig's - - at times prepared - - bass guitar, the instrument with which, as is Uli Trepte's belief, one can achieve perfect synergy of rhythm and tune.]
Rigo Dittmann, Bad Alchemy
Despite his reputation as a bassist, Steuart Liebig's presence on these three compositions is surprisingly secondary. Instead, the music focuses more on the high end provided by Ellen Burr's flute and Jeanette Kangas's vibraphone. Spare and haunting, the 51 minute "Mosaic" balances silence against dissonant hits. Although the brief bursts of sound are restrained in comparison to the surroundings, they come off as train wrecks -- a sensation only heightened by their carefully constructed dissonance. The two shorter pieces, "Chrysanthemum" and "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise", compress the quiet portions and bring the bass a bit more to the forefront -- but again, the focus on dissonance and leanness of sound feels surprisingly spare compared to Liebig's other work. If Bitches Brew changed your life, you will find a lot to connect with here, as both sets focus on space and conflicting tones to achieve their mood. If you can't distinguish between Miles Davis and Sammy Davis Jr., though, you'd best pass this one by.
Ron Davies, splendidezine.com
Californian contrabass guitarist Steuart Liebig has been improvising with musicians such as saxophonist Vinny Golia and Nels Cline. In the quartet Minim he is joined by widely recorded violinist Jeff Gauthier, flautist Ellen Burr (whose teachers include John Cage and Morton Subotnick), and percussionist Jeanette Kangas. Quicksilver presents three of the bassist's composed works. Mosaic is a 50-minute collection of 23 miniatures, varied and contrasting in character and scored to accommodate improvising. Liebig uses prepared and well as standard bass. Kangas plays both vibes and drum kit. The four voices retain their independence within the group dynamic, taking solos, forming temporary alliance, shadowing, echoing, interweaving. At times melodic, at times abstract, the music remains well ventilated.
On this set bass guitarist Steuart Liebig shows none of his rock credentials and nearly no jazz affiliation. It's a set of European concert chamber music, thoroughly organised. It's hard to determine how much is improvised, how much written, how much just a filling in of sketches. Is this a compilation of recordings of various improvisations, rather than the recording of complex compositions which existed before the session?
This range of musical resources wasn't available to, say, Debussy, but its closest affinity is to Western concert chamber compositions which integrate matter from or imitate oriental and various folk musics from less far east. Sometimes you hear one, sometimes two, sometimes three of the performers in different permutations and doublings. Not all are heard on each of the 23 short sections of "Mosaic," but at moments of high excitement they're all working. The sections are called haiku; the central feel isn't Japanese but Western music trying to play decently Japanese. Yet although the bass guitar can play koto, and the flute be similarly oriental, the violins can sound like Bartok without a Hungarian accent, or maybe Britten. They seldom sound amplified. The jazz drum kit sounds merely like its import into a context like Ravel. The jazz rhythms are an import and not central.
There's no reason to call this music jazz when, for instance in the final number, the drive is strictly that of European dance or Asian ecstatic music, and Asia seems to rule, for all the flautist's ability to shrill and be edgy in no very oriental way. When especially duet passages, but also episodes of interaction crop up, the music is at its most interesting.
If vibes and bass-guitar seem unusual presences in post-1920 Western chamber music, this is quite singular, strange stuff. It's not crazy - - far less unapproachable. The more conservative listener will undoubtedly feel simply puzzled, others intrigued.
Robert R. Calder, allaboutjazz.com/UK
Finding a meeting place between contemporary chamber composition and improvisation can be a challenge. All too often artists who spend their time in the more rigid confines of the classical world fail as improvisers, because they work most commonly with formal structure, where expression is defined in terms of subtle nuances in dynamics and phrasing. Pure improvisers, on the other hand, are sometimes too liberal, unable to work comfortably within a more rigorous form.
Still, there are an increasing number of artists managing to bridge the gap - - and they're coming from both ends of the spectrum. The Kronos Quartet, on its latest disc, Mugam Sayagi, moved towards the centre on pieces that are formal in nature but demand the string quartet to be more overtly improvisational. And groups like Clogs, with a mix of players from both sides of the fence, create a music that blends the best of both worlds.
Contrabassist Steuart Liebig is an artist who has spent considerable time in both universes. Playing rhythm guitar at an early age for Les McCann, Liebig also pursued classical studies on contrabass. Since his first release under his own name in '93, with his trumpet/violin/bass/drums Quartetto Stig, Liebig has chosen to work within the broader scope of improvised music - - a cousin of free jazz that, while equally extemporaneous in nature, is more rooted in contemporary classical music than traditional jazz concepts, and can also include more formal through-composition.
With his latest quartet, Minim, Liebig's Quicksilver leans more towards the structured side; still, improvisation is an integral part. The first piece, the 52-minute, 23-part "Mosaic," is based on the concept of the haiku; but rather than centre itself on any particular poems, it used the haiku's structure as a foundation - - pieces with 17 measures, or a 17-note theme, for example. Liebig and his rather unusual group - - violinist Jeff Gauthier, flautist Ellen Burr, and percussionist/vibraphonist Jeanette Kangas - - wind their way through a series of miniatures, ranging from a little over a minute to just shy of four. Breaking up the quartet for solo pieces and various duo and trio combinations, as well as nine pieces for the whole ensemble, Liebig creates a surprising variety of textures with such a small ensemble. Some pieces are strongly rhythmical in nature - - like the second part, which revolves a pulsing 5/4 figure - - others more subtly so, like the seventh part, where there is form, but time is more elastic.
On "Mosaic," as on the two longer pieces that conclude the disc - - "Chrysanthemum" and "A Single Rosehip Bursts in Praise" - - the general ambience is one of dark elegance. The harmonic foundation may be oblique, but there are no sharp edges, and a certain delicacy pervades. The quartet utilizes space as an equal fifth member, and a gentle delivery that makes for a strangely compelling experience.
For a look at how modern improvisation can be seamlessly married to more stringent construction, Quicksilver is an album that adventurously blurs the boundaries, demonstrating that two apparently contrasting views can comfortably coexist.
John Kelman, allaboutjazz.com
Quicksilver features another bassist, Steuart Liebig, in a much different setting, an abstract quartet of flute, electric violin, bass, and percussion. The first piece, "Mosaics," is actually 23 smaller pieces based on the form of Japanese haiku combining the instruments in all sorts of ways, like Jeff Gauthier's violin sawing over Liebig's pawing bass, a lively violin-drum duet, all four instruments chasing each other in the form of a round, choppy bits of breathy flute, rattling cymbals, and fast bass, slower piano, and flute duets and a complex bass solo where Liebig comes off like Yes' Chris Squire. The other two pieces have the musicians interacting in much more extended forms. Their small statements now connect up and lead to longer solo passages of floating vibes, authoritative bass, swaying violin, and piping flute. The total effect is eerie and melancholy with all the small bits resembling dance steps. Indeed "Rosehip Bursts" was written for a dance company. That piece is hard-edged and percussive with clashing instruments and fluttery, rattling noises around the solos. "Chrysanthemum" is lighter and has more continual motion with the instruments gingerly keeping out of each other's way. The four musicians work together in an airy, intricate way that never bores. They have created a lovely CD full of delicate music.
Jerome Wilson, Cadence
If you want to read my notes on this album, click here.