Jazz Virtuosos on the Art of Self-Editing

By 
Katie Gibson
October 3, 2019
Liebman and Davis performed together and then discussed their musical approaches.
David Liebman
Kris Davis
Image by Adam Ridhwan
Image by Adam Ridhwan
Image by Adam Ridhwan

Jazz is famous for being an improvisational genre—whether the musicians in the room are longtime collaborators or are meeting each other for the first time. But free improvisation doesn’t necessarily mean a free-for-all. At a recent Berklee Global Jazz Institute forum, musicians Kris Davis and David Liebman offered their wisdom to a packed house of students at the Red Room at Cafe 939.

Davis, a jazz pianist and composer, joined the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice this fall as associate program director of creative development. Liebman, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist and recipient of an NEA Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award, donated his personal archive to Berklee last year and is a guest artist in residence for BGJI.

“This music demands that you stop before you’re ready to stop. Of course, exactly when that should be is up for debate.”

—David Liebman

The two musicians listened and offered their feedback to a five-piece student ensemble comprising performers from four different countries. Liebman quoted veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who told him, “You’ll spend the rest of your life editing,” when Liebman was a young musician. “Less can be more,” Liebman told the students, and Davis agreed. “I dig the coda, but it wanders,” she said, emphasizing the need to let the piece end when it needs to end. 

Liebman then pulled out his saxophone and Davis went to the piano for their first duo session, which wove her ethereal chords together with his winding sax riffs. “This music demands that you stop before you’re ready to stop,” Liebman said afterward. “Of course, exactly when that should be is up for debate.”

Davis talked about her love of the sostenuto (middle) piano pedal, and added that she likes to experiment with “found sounds.” “I never know what note I’m going to be playing unless I label them beforehand,” she said, highlighting the joy of improvisation and discovery: “That’s the space I want to live in.”