Improv Column: Wayne McConnell on Flying With Lieb
Wayne McConnell discusses his recent experience performing with saxophonist Dave Liebman.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about doing this gig. Having listened to Dave Liebman’s music for a number of years, one gets the impression that this guy does not mess about! Well, I can report that he indeed does not mess about, ‘Once you are on the bandstand, it is business’ he expressed in the masterclass earlier. Dave gave a wonderful masterclass last Sunday as part of the Brighton Jazz School Masterclass Series. He spoke about his time with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. As he was reliving these great stories, it occurred to me that I would be playing with this man in less than three hours time. The anxiety began to set in. I’m no stranger to performance anxiety; I always get nervous when I play but I was more nervous about this gig. Similarly, I was nervous a few years back when I played with the US vibraphonist Joe Locke. On both occasions I found it very easy to let my thoughts get the better of me. Two musician friends of mine gave me some excellent advice. Just before playing with Joe Locke the bassist Steve Thompson (who was also on the gig) gave me some sound advice. I had to change my clothes and so Steve said ‘when you get changed, imagine the clothes you are taking off are a symbol for all the nervous/negative energy and the clothes you put on are the warm positive ones. It really helped. Jonathan Lewis, a wonderful saxophonist and composer who I’ve known for a number of years is a huge Liebman fan and so was at the gig. Just before going on, he casually whispered to me ‘be yourself’ just before I went on. That was enough to help me change those negative thought patterns. The negative thought patterns were centred around some of my favourite pianists. In the case of Joe Locke, it was, of course, Geoffrey Keezer (his then pianist). In the case of Lieb it was Herbie, Chick and Joey Calderazzo. My mind kept telling me, ‘hey man, Lieb is used to playing with Herbie and Chick, what the hell are you gonna do?’ My mind’s reply was ‘well, I’m nothing so I’ve got to try and sound like those guys’. All the while knowing that those thoughts were utterly ridiculous and that it was impossible for me to sound like anyone except me. Those kinds of thoughts can completely close down your creativity. I really had to keep them in check. I somehow managed to avert those thoughts by really listening to those words that Jonathan said to me ‘be yourself’. I often tell my students ‘you should be proud of your sound and what you can do’. After all, nobody on this planet sounds like you. It is of course, always easier to give advice to others.
I have to say at this point that despite all my anxious thoughts and rumours about Dave, I found him to be utterly charming and very supportive. He was very easy and pleasant to work with. It was all about the music. Luckily for me, he chose standards that I knew. We played one tune by John Coltrane that I’d never played before. India is a tune I first heard on the Live at the Vanguard (1961) album 15 years ago. I remember hearing it and really connecting with the energy and power of the tune. Every time I heard it, it would send a rush of adrenaline through me.
For me, playing that tune with Liebman was a true highlight. Having the support and input from Terry Pack, Asaf Sirkis and Nick Smart was the icing on the cake.
My concern with ‘making music’ was lifted out of the equation and the music felt like it was playing itself. It was one of those moments that musicians live for. I’m not saying my playing was any better but I was suddenly free from any nervous energy and transported to another realm. It is a sensation that I’m familiar with but usually while in the cockpit of an aircraft. I was truly flying.
Huge thanks to Terry, Asaf, Nick and of course Dave for playing so beautifully. Big thanks to Fred Hasson, who took care of the logistics and did a good job with the vodka. Lastly and most importantly, thank you to everyone who attended, your support is needed so much, thank you for allowing us to make it happen. Looking forward to the next one!