|It’s only been in the past decade that the electric music of the late Miles Davis has been re-explored, attaining more widespread credibility and acceptance. It’s turning out to be a matter of catching up with an icon that, through the many phases of his career, was often ahead of his time. Like so many others, saxophonist Dave Liebman only played with the trumpet legend for a brief period, but he acknowledges its significant effect. Back on the Corner explores that impact in the most personal of ways.
Liebman played on Davis’ On the Corner (Legacy, 1972)—a dense album that, with its repetitive grooves and flat-out sonic assaults, was one of the trumpeter’s most audacious and controversial recordings. Augmenting his current quartet with two guests—guitarist (and Davis alumnus) Mike Stern and electric contrabassist Anthony Jackson—Liebman has expanded his sonic capabilities, but the overall approach is filled with a space and, at times, calm rarely heard in Miles’ mid-‘70s music.
Unlike other tributes, there’s no trumpet here, and the emphasis is on original material. The studio versions of the two Davis tracks Liebman has selected are ones that he didn’t perform on record, though he did play them in performance. “Black Satin” rocks as hard as Miles ever did, but breathes more in the process; “IFE” is a slower, greasier take where Vic Juris once again demonstrates his remarkable versatility and incomprehensible position as one of jazz’s most undervalued guitarists.
Liebman may be known for his fiery intensity—and he delivers plenty of it on tracks like the swinging “5th Street” and Latin-esque “New Mambo,” where, following an equally powerful solo from Stern, he goes it alone with drummer Marko Marcinko before the rest of the group gradually re-enters. Both tracks also point to Liebman as a writer of greater detail. There’s ample solo space throughout the album and a strong emphasis on groove. But Liebman writes more clearly delineated heads, which provide a greater focal point for the rest of the group.
Perhaps the biggest revelation is “Bela,” a tranquil, classically informed tone poem that features a lyrical bass solo from Tony Marino and some elegant tradeoffs between Stern and Juris. The reference to Miles may appear subtle given the time period when Liebman worked with him, but Miles always respected spare economy and classicism. “Bela” is one of the most vulnerable and fragile pieces Liebman has every written, though the tenuous groove of “Mesa D’Espana” is a close second.
What makes Back on the Corner special is its avoidance of literal homage. Instead, Liebman demonstrates the very particular effect that Miles had on him in ways that may require a little searching. Liebman has always spoken with his own voice, but dig deep into Miles, and Liebman’s respect on Back on the Corner becomes crystal clear.