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Vein featuring Dave Liebman

Vein featuring Dave Liebman at The Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham, 29/05/2015.

Photography: Image sourced from the Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

May 31, 2015


Ian Mann on this hugely fruitful collaboration between Swiss piano trio Vein and the highly esteemed US sax veteran. He also enjoys an earlier set by local alto saxophonist Chris Young's quartet.

Vein featuring Dave Liebman, The Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, 29/05/2015.

Vein are a Swiss piano trio founded in 2006 by the twin brothers Michael Arbenz (piano) and Florian Arbenz (drums) together with bassist Thomas Lahns. They have recorded a total of nine albums overall, some in the trio format, others in collaborations with leading American musicians, among them alto saxophonist Greg Osby, trombonist Glenn Ferris, and of course Dave Liebman.
Liebman, a former Miles Davis sideman, is justly ranked as one of the world’s top saxophone players. He is also an acclaimed educator and a serial collaborator who has worked prolifically with British and European musicians, among them guitarist Phil Robson, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Paris based pianist Jean-Marie Machado.

The saxophonist has been collaborating with Vein since 2009, the alliance the result of an email approach to the great man from pianist Michael Arbenz.  A successful inaugural tour saw a strong bond being forged between the Swiss trio and the illustrious American and they continued to perform together documenting their music on the live album “Lemuria”, recorded at two dates on a 2012 European tour.

2015 saw the release of the studio album “Jazz Talks”, a recording that has garnered considerable critical acclaim right across Europe. It’s a record that I very much enjoyed but I always got the feeling that the group’s live appearances had the potential to be even better, a hypothesis that was borne out by this evening’s excellent performance.

The event took place in the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, I believe that Liebman had conducted a master-class with students there during the day. The intimate nature of the hall with its excellent acoustics and superb Steinway grand piano served the quartet well. An uninterrupted set included two lengthy explorations of jazz standards plus four compositions from within the group, one from Liebman and three from pianist Michael Arbenz.

Solo piano introduced the opening piece, Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love”. Liebman then sketched the theme on tenor sax before handing over to Michael Arbenz for an inventive and expansive piano solo which was expertly encouraged by brother Florian , first with brushes, later with sticks. Liebman, eyes closed, appeared to be in a state of reverie, drinking the music in. Lahns was the next to solo, accompanied first by Florian’s brushed drums and then by Liebman in an intriguing bass/tenor sax duet. From this Liebman’s own solo gradually developed, his powerful playing peaking with a display of almost Coltrane like intensity as Liebman paid homage to the man whose music first turned him on to jazz.

Nest up was Liebman’s own “Negative Space”, one of the outstanding tracks on the recent “Jazz Talks” album. I’ll be honest here, I don’t really think my review of the record does sufficient justice to just how good this piece is. Tonight’s performance was very different to the recorded version and opened with a remarkable piece of unaccompanied bowed bass from Lahns, his playing exploiting the full range of the instrument from grainy, sepulchral low register groans to almost impossible high register squeaks. Eventually Liebman, on what I have always described as a “wood flute” - “Jazz Talks” calls it a wooden recorder- joined in for a delightful duet. As Lahns put down his bow Liebman picked out an arresting, folk like melody on the recorder as bass and brushed drums entered the equation and steered the music in a more modal direction. Liebman’s melody then formed the basis for his soprano sax solo as the music began to sound more like the recorded version. As the intensity increased Florian picked up his sticks and brother Michael launched into another dynamic and imaginative piano solo. Overall this was a definite highlight in a set that was of a remarkably high standard throughout.

George Gershwin’s ballad “I Loves You Porgy” was beautifully played as a duet by Michael Arbenz at the piano and Liebman on sensitive and responsive tenor sax. The piece also appears in the quartet format on the “Lemuria” live album. Liebman has a particular affinity for performing with pianists in the intimacy of a duo situation as evidenced by his superb 2011 album “Eternal Moments” recorded with Jean-Marie Machado.

A prolonged solo drum feature introduced Michael Arbenz’s “No Change Is Strange” , this developing into a lively duo exchange with Liebman’s soprano sax before piano and bowed bass were added to the equation. Lahns put the down the bow as he and Florian Arbenz added a bustling rhythmic impetus to Michael’s urgent piano solo. Change was very much the theme of this piece as the music fragmented into a freely structured section featuring squalling soprano sax and arco bass followed by a dialogue between bowed bass and drums and finally an explosive band finale. This was the musical equivalent of a white knuckle ride, thrilling stuff.

Despite the jocular sounding title Michael Arbenz’s “Black Tortoise”, a piece sourced from the “Jazz Talks” album, was actually an elegant and sensitive piece of work introduced by piano and plucked bass and subsequently featuring Liebman’s breathy tenor sax and Florian’s delicately brushed drums.  The solos by Lahns, Liebman and Michael Arbenz were all beautiful and flowingly lyrical.

The Michael Arbenz tune “Everything For Everybody” was sourced from Vein’s most recent trio recording “Vote For Vein” and added Liebman on soprano sax. This high energy offering included effusive solos from Michael Arbenz on piano and Liebman on incisive soprano sax, both soloists benefiting from the presence of Lahns’ propulsive bass lines and Florian Arbenz’s crisp, hard driving drumming. 

The turnout at the Conservatoire Recital Hall was frankly disappointing, there were a considerable number of students in the audience but relatively few regular jazz punters I’d say. Nevertheless the enthusiasm of the select few who had just witnesses a set of exceptional music was enough to encourage the four musicians back for an encore. This was a lengthy, unannounced piece that began with a solo piano introduction with bass, tenor sax and brushed drums being added incrementally. The music was quiet and spacious and featured Lahn’s bowed bass and Liebman’s subtle tenor sax probing. During Liebman’s sax solo the music grew intensity rising to a peak before a sudden change of mood and pace as Liebman took up his wooden recorder and combined with Lahns’ bowed bass and Florian’s cymbal shimmers above Michael’s underlying piano melody. A subsequent passage featuring tenor sax, bowed bass and piano achieved a chamber music like beauty which contrasted well with the following section in which Liebman’s tenor sax incantations accompanied by bowed bass and a rolling piano vamp took the music into the kind of “spiritual jazz” territory associated with John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.  The wooden recorder was then produced again to create a delightful coda. The narrative arc of this piece was similar to Liebman’s composition “Climb” on the “Lemuria” album and may have been the latest incarnation of this tune.

The Vein trio is a successful entity in its own right and the three musicians are highly accomplished live performers who have a number of concert recordings in their back catalogue. However their collaboration with Liebman is a hugely fruitful one, one that focusses the minds of the Swiss trio and steers them away from the kind of self conscious whimsy that sometimes detracted from the music on the “Vote For Vein” record. Despite an increasing physical frailty Liebman himself is playing just as well as ever, his tune huge and expressive when required, restrained and sensitive at others but always intelligent, articulate and inventive, still within the tradition yet still always finding new ways to talk about it.

I’ve seen Liebman perform in a variety of contexts over the years but this was the first time I’d seen the Vein trio. I was highly impressed with their musicianship throughout, both individually and collectively. They are a first rate trio in their own right but are also supreme collaborators as this mutually beneficial alliance has proved.

Earlier in the evening Birmingham’s jazz fans had been entertained by alto saxophonist Chris Young and his quartet at the free early evening Jazzlines gig in the Café Bar at Symphony Hall. Young graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire three years ago and continues to live and work in the city. Tonight’s event was his first performance in this slot leading a group of his own and the band featured fellow graduate Nick Jurd on double bass plus two of Young’s former tutors, Hans Koller on piano and Andrew Bain at the drums. Fellow saxophonist Llluis Mather was also due to play, presumably on tenor, but got delayed in traffic on his way up from London and missed the gig entirely. Nevertheless Young and his colleagues acquitted themselves well on a programme drawn mainly from the repertoires of Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Young proved himself to be a fluent and articulate alto soloist and the excellent Koller provided a good foil for the young saxophonist as well as delivering several intelligent well constructed solos of his own. Nick Jurd, who I’d seen just a few days earlier playing at Dempsey’s in Cardiff with saxophonist Rachael Cohen’s trio, is a rapidly maturing musician and soloist and Bain added solid and sympathetic rhythmic support. All in all a good start to an exceptional evening of music making in Birmingham.

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