Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Liebman studied classical piano and saxophone before focusing on jazz, a move he attributes to seeing Coltrane perform live in New York on multiple occasions. He continued his private jazz studies with such artists as Joe Allard, Lennie Tristano, and Charles Lloyd while earning a degree in American History from New York University. After graduating, he focused solely on a career in music and quickly became an active leader in the vibrant, late-'60s loft scene in New York City. After a year with the early fusion ensemble Ten Wheel Drive, Liebman was asked to join former Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones' band, and ultimately appeared on several of Jones' albums in the '70s. This brought him to the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis, who hired him from 1970 to 1974. During this period, Liebman toured and recorded with Davis, appearing on such albums as 1972's classic On the Corner as well as 1974's Dark Magus and Get Up with It.
Liebman eventually left Davis' band and began working on his own music in various ensembles including the Open Sky Trio with pianist Bob Moses, Lookout Farm with pianist Richie Beirach and guitarist John Abercrombie, and his own David Liebman Quintet, featuring guitarist John Scofield and Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino. This was a fertile, exploratory period for Liebman that resulted in a handful of stellar albums, including 1974's Lookout Farm (ECM), 1975's Drum Ode (ECM), 1977's Forgotten Fantasies (Timeless), 1978's Omerta (Storyville), and 1979's Doin' It Again (Timeless).
In the early '80s, Liebman formed the cooperative ensemble Quest with pianist Richie Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and bassist George Mraz, and later bassist Ron McClure. Beginning with group's self-titled 1981 debut for Palo Alto, Quest has continued to release albums throughout Liebman's career. Also during the '80s, Liebman recorded regularly, appearing on myriad albums including Elvin Jones' 1982 album Earth Jones (Palo Alto), 1983's Things We Did Last Summer with trumpeter John McNeil (Steeplechase), 1985's Double Edge with pianist Beirach (Storyville), as well as his own albums including 1985's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (CMP), 1987's Homage to John Coltrane (OWL/EMI), 1988's Trio + One (OWL/EMI), and 1989's The Blessing of Old Long Sound (Newsound).
It was also during the late '80s that Liebman began splitting his time between playing and teaching jazz. An early clinician at the Jamey Aebersold camps during the '70s, Liebman met such jazz educators as David Baker, Jerry Hearle, Jerry Coker, and other early proponents of formal jazz studies. These experiences, as well as seeing firsthand the interest and need for jazz instruction worldwide while on tours in Europe, spurred Liebman to found the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) in 1989. Along with releasing such highly regarded albums as 1990's The Tree, 1994's Songs for My Daughter, and 1998's John Coltrane's Meditations, Liebman continued to work with the IASJ to promote jazz and mentor students. For his work, Liebman received several awards in the field of jazz education including being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master for 2011.
While retaining a strong focus on jazz education, Liebman remains a vital, creative force on the jazz scene and performs and records regularly. In 2010, he released the big-band album Live: As Always and appeared as a featured guest on The Bickel-Marks Group with David Liebman. He then paired with pianist Lewis Porter and guitarist Marc Ribot for 2012's Surreality on Enja. Several more well-received dates followed, including his 2014 big-band effort A Tribute to Wayne Shorter, 2015's Sketches of Aranjuez, and the 2016 duo album Balladscapes, with pianist Richie Beirach. In 2017, Liebman collaborated with fellow saxophonist Joe Lovano on the tribute album Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane. He then joined longtime associates pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette for 2018's Fire. In 2019, Liebman was a part of two different ensembles, releasing Four Visions with a sax quartet that featured Dave Binney, Donny McCaslin, and Samuel Blais, as well as the Miles Davis tribute album On the Corner Live!, which featured players like Victor Wooten and Jeff Coffin. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi
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