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Hermit in the Spotlight
Steuart Liebig's Comprovisation Unlimited
by Greg Burk
His head is of normal size. So there must be more heads somewhere. Behind a panel here in his cluttered-up studio, maybe - - gotta be at least six skulls-w/brains, maybe 10, that he can screw on when he needs 'em. One so he can function as a parent, moneymaker and social being like the rest of us. And one for each of his gargantuan musical and cultural specialty banks. Because there's no way - - no way - - that it all fits in one head.
Electric bass is mostly what Steuart Liebig plays. He requires more than four strings, though, and he rarely tunes to E. He's writing a book about bass technique. He composes within (and across) modes of classical, jazz, blues and "experimental." He plays in groups with Gregg Bendian, Henry Kaiser, Vinny Golia, G.E. Stinson and a legion more. He's also usually got at least three of his own ensembles going. That's enough about his credits for now; newsprint is finite.
Switch scenes to late July at Club Tropical, where Liebig's got a gig with his most populist group, the blues-jazz rave-up called the Mentones (named after the Culver City street where he lives). He walks onstage to test the sound, carrying under his arm a bass the size of a surfboard. Hair hanging in his closed eyes, he revs through the truck-engine riff of Deep Purple's "Burn" by way of warm-up.
And the burning don't stop there, buddy. The Mentones sound like nobody else, but to cop a hint, think of a supercharged Magic Band at its most direct. At the frontline is slouchy Bill Barrett on chromatic harmonica and tall, skinny Tony Atherton on alto sax; turn your back and you might not distinguish between them as they carve out rugged unisons or stagger complementary lead lines. Liebig gazes feetward, right elbow up in funk-plucking position, while digging into a pushy groove with the wizardly skinsman Joseph Berardi, who's banging on a cymbal that sounds like a metal trash lid. Here's Liebig, sliding around the upper bass neck for some raga blues; there's Atherton, pulling off his mouthpiece to cup it and blow it like a harp; stand back as Barrett slurs slowly between harmonica tones, blasts hair-raising clusters of dissonance, and nails a high note that screams like a stabbed eagle.
The Mentones fly Hendrix Airlines to Egypt and Chicago, torquing the energy high, and the club patrons are falling off their chairs with glee - - like, what is this? Afterward, a bass player in the audience approaches Liebig and grills him on how the hell he got a certain deadened "acoustic" sound; Liebig concisely explains the proper positioning of fingers and palm.
On the same musical planet, different conceptual continent, venture into a September tripfest at the same venue with Lane Ends Merge Left, Liebig's intense "fusion" band. This gang is jammier, with more extremes of loud and quiet, a climate suitable to drummer Alex Cline, who tickles the gentlest of hyper-resonances and also grapples fiercely with a collective groove that builds tremendous momentum no matter which directions everybody seems to be pulling. Jeff Gauthier paints infinite shadings of tone and emotion on violin, then plunges into an elastic near-unison with the hulking New Zealand reedman Andrew Pask - - it's cohesive enough to have been scored, but the spontaneity and the thrill factor tell you nope. Liebig, meanwhile, gnarls so hard and fast, you can't believe he's not spinning out of the rhythm. It's an edge dance, and attendees are gaping.
Yet another angle: Liebig must've screwed on one of his optional crania for an October performance at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center, where he leads his ethereal chamber group, Minim. Liebig sets the machine in motion by striking his bass with a mallet ; Gauthier is on board with his sad-Gypsy thing; Ellen Burr is the voice of clarity on flute and piccolo; Jeanette Kangas switches between drums and vibraphone, at times stroking the latter with some kind of split sticks for a lightweight tumbleweed effect. Everybody changes partners in a shifting series of highly original tone poems and improvisations that distantly recall 20th-century Austrian composers. Intellectual, yet warm.
The twisted, gushing ambition of his Pomegranate album. The waves of electronic mutation he brings to Splinter Group. The textural/harmonic Bach-to-Webern condensation of his solo-bass work. Stigtette, his quartet with three woodwinds. Back 20 years to his stint with the funky-spacy pop group Bloc . . . Yeah, we already acknowledged the limitations of newsprint.
So let's talk about Rome. Obsessed with the unburied conflicts that continue to shape our modern world, Steuart (pronounced "Stuart") Liebig points out the Balkans as an example of unresolved ancient competition - - Roman vs. "barbarian," Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox, Christian vs. Muslim. His studio wall is plastered with pictures of beautiful architectural remnants that embody, for example, Roman power remanifested in Christian cathedrals.
The broad scope of history obviously reflects in Liebig's music; this is a guy who listens to both Schubert and Funkadelic, and who has written a composition based on impressions of different rooms in a favorite European edifice. He also uses the ancient science of numerology to get his juices flowing.
"It's like composition games," says Liebig. "The fun of it is making little puzzles out of it." He says "Mosaic," the main piece on Minim's Quicksilver , is in 23 parts - - "the number of chromosomes of man. Okay, I admit I'm nuts."
From the other end of the binoculars (rotate another head onto the neck here), he possesses the most precise and nuanced technique of any bassist you're likely to hear/see. Watch him sometime, rocking in place, half smiling, his right hand squeezing individual strings just so, on a particular spot nearer to or farther from the bass's bridge, his left applying an easy vibrato or tremolo (he plays fretless); he's probably also processing the results through a squadron of foot pedals. It's all stuff he wants to put in his book.
"I'm trying to emancipate the electric bass from just being the guy standing in the back playing the note, and everybody else jamming," he says. "I want people to approach the instrument from a more artistic point of view."
Liebig began to see music differently as a teenager at a progressive school. "I learned about Ornette Coleman, Harry Partch - - my second theory teacher was Dean Drummond, who was a Harry Partch disciple." With models like that, restrictions were out the window; you could conceive your own methods, invent your own instruments. Not that he's a snob about it. He likes Korn's guitar orchestration, thinks Metallica's Master of Puppets was "fucking brilliant." Liebig may have fewer limitations than most, but everyone's got 'em - - he realizes that
it's what you do within your limitations that counts. It's like
the L.A.-vs.-N.Y. thing; the environment actually affects how you play.
"I think that a guy like Vinny Golia in New York would not have the tremendous amount of woodwind instruments - - in L.A., he'll bring, like, five saxophones to a gig. You've seen Alex Cline, where he'll do a two-hour, three-hour setup. If I was in New York, I wouldn't be bringing an amp and four boxes of pedals. I've traveled through New York with gear - - it's a complete pain in the ass. We live in a car culture. We have different options for colors . . . and for excess."
Liebig doesn't mean that in a bad way, of course. Call it excess or call it freedom, he's achieved a lot, much to the admiration of old hands like Alex Cline, who's known him for nearly 30 years.
"His concentrated effort to keep all the demanding departments of life fully engaged while constantly developing and refining his accomplished, uncompromising art is a real inspiration to me," says Cline, who decided he could be a parent himself when he saw his friend pull it off.
Seems like you have to be in the world and outside of it at the same time. "I think playing music is a quasi-spiritual thing," says Liebig, "because it gets into self-examination and meditation and being a hermit . . . You have to kind of pull yourself into a cave and deal with stuff. You have to get beyond your own ego."
So - - is there an optional head for that?
All roads lead out of Rome, you know