REVIEW: Dave Liebman & Bobby Avey – Vienna Dialogues

New on the Zoho label, Vienna Dialogues features well-regarded soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman on a follow-up to his previous Manhattan Dialogues, on which he collaborated with Phil Markowitz. This time around, he chooses young pianist Bobby Avey as a partner, and focuses on 19th century romantic European art music. Included are pieces by Schubert, Handel, Brahms, and others of the era, and although Liebman is obviously the star here, in the album notes he gives credit to Avey for most of the arrangements.

Liebman has dozens of albums to his credit, and this new release continues one of his favorite traditions – a duet undertaken on a body of music that might be surprising to traditional jazz fans, but making perfect sense once heard. What’s a little surprising is that Liebman, who is certainly one of the most innovative musicians in jazz and is well-known for his improvisations, would choose to focus on classical music, a genre that would seem to have little wiggle room. But he has tread this path before, and as he says, “The challenge is to convey an emotional attitude culled from the written music, while infusing it with one’s own personal inflections, guided above all by good taste.”

I’m not sure that I’m familiar enough with the pieces they’ve chosen to be able to judge where the written score ends and the musicians’ interpretations begin, but – although there is some improvisation taking place – it seems to me that the proper respect is being paid to the originals, so much so that this album could probably be shelved in the classical section of the music store — that is, if anyone still goes to music stores.

It took me a while to warm up to the music on the album, but after several listens I began to appreciate it a little more, and I also began to realize that part of the problem lay in my expectations. I am at heart a big band and early jazz disciple, and when I saw that this album was one that combined jazz musicians with classical music, I immediately thought back to how much I’d enjoyed that type of fusion in the past. Ellington’s interpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite” came to mind, along with Benny Goodman playing Mozart. I also remembered Glen Gray’s Shall We Swing album, which features driving big band arrangements of familiar light classics.

That’s not even close to what you’ll find on this album, starting with the music itself. The romantic era in European music is loosely defined as a period from the mid 1850s to the early 1900s, and the music itself is generally considered be be soft, slow, dreamy, and – well – romantic. I’m oversimplifying but that’s the gist of it, and I’m not sure if it would be my first choice for a jazz interpretation. However, it might be just that for a lot of people, and there is no doubt that much of the music on this album is remarkable, as are the performances. (There are a few clips to sample in the listing below.)

So I guess I’d say that while this album isn’t really my cup of tea, that’s probably because I’m an orange-pekoe kind of guy (with an occasional foray into earl grey), so if your tastes run to less conventional blends, like…well, I’m not going to stretch this metaphor any further. Let’s just say that this is quality work from a virtuoso saxophonist and his partner on piano, and should be a good fit for anyone looking for something a little different.

Dave Liebman & Bobby Avey – Vienna Dialogues

1. Romance Op.94 No.2 (Schumann)
2. Etude In E Flat Minor, Op.10 No.6 (Chopin)
3. May Breezes Op.62 No.1 (Mendelssohn)
4. Immer Leiser Wird Mein Schlummer Op.105 No.2 (Brahms)
5. Sonata No.6 (Handel)
6. Tranenregen/Wasserflut (Schubert)
7. Fleur Des Bles (Debussy)
8. Der Einsame Im Herbst (Mahler)

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