Interviewing David Liebman on Jazz Phrasing and Interplay

As part of my research during my Master’s studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, I conducted a number of interviews of renowned jazz musicians and academics from the International Jazz scene. American jazz saxophonist David Liebman was very generous to offer me his time and share his wisdom in this conversation we had via telephone. You can listen and read the whole interview below.

Title of the research project:

Phrasing and interplay from the vocal point of view.

Phrasing as the vocalist’s tool to stimulate interplay within a jazz combo.


Research Question:

How can phrasing be a tool of the jazz vocalist towards stimulating interplay and creative response in a band’s musical conversation, while singing the theme or improvising?



1.    What does the word phrasing mean to you?


Phrasing is pervasive from the beginning and end of a note; how you articulate the note…. legato vs staccato and everything in between; the end of a note like whether you do a vibrato or cut it off or let the note fade away; time feel meaning the swinging eighth note, which is the essence of jazz rhythm and swing; nuance of course which makes, each artist unique…. meaning in essence the way each individual speaks and gestures. Like in real life, nobody talks the same or expresses themselves the same. For example the use of nuance for a vocalist might be a particular way you might end a note with breathiness or a “fall-off.” Maybe you bend a note which you can do a lot easier than a piano can do! (laughs) These are all the things that a horn player thinks about and are absolutely relevant to any singer, especially if they’re trying to do any kind of improvisation. The main way I teach this nuance subject is transcription. The way I teach transcription (and you can find it on my website under Educational Articles) is that the student sings or plays exactly…I mean EXACTLY, EXACTLY, EXACTLY (I can’t stress it enough!!!) like the original artist that you’re copying. So if you’re singing along with John Coltrane or Betty Carter, no matter who it is, there should be no difference between the student and the artist being copied. When I hear you sing or play, you should sound exactly in unison with the artist. That’s how I address matters of phrasing (a very over used word by the way.) Because there’s no way to really notate all the things I just talked about. We can try but it’s quite tedious and a drag. The only way to learn about nuance it is to duplicate somebody who does those things well. 

This also pertains to tone and sound on your instrument, which you try to emulate also. Again, I don’t mean only the notes, because everybody pays attention to that obviously. The essence of transcription is the aural process, learning things that cannot be put on paper. If I put a solo on a paper in front of you and I say play it, we don’t know how it’s supposed to sound with the tone, nuance, etc. It’s going to turn into an exercise. But once we hear Hank Mobley do it or Freddie Hubbard for example, then we get the feel, the kind of articulation, the nuance and we start to build, in an oral way from the master to the student, the true vocabulary without necessarily writing it down.

After you have copied the solo EXACTLY you get a rhythm section or play-along and execute the solo without leaning on the recording. We might change the key or change the tempo. Then I need you to write two “perfect” choruses in the artist’s style for a jumping off point to play your own solo, again in the style of the artist you are copying. Then there are some other things with analysis that I mention in the article about taking all the ii-v lines for example, putting them all in one group on a page; choose two or three lines that are superior to the others; do them in all twelve keys and then going back to a play along and sing those ii-vs that you liked with variations. There’s a lot to be learned in this transcription process and I urge you again to read the article or get the DVD on this subject. The whole point is to use transcription for artistic evolution because if it was just an exercise, it wouldn’t be as useful. 


2.    Why is phrasing considered to be one of the most important elements in jazz music?


Phrasing is the most important element in all music. It means the way somebody speaks, beyond the content; the manner in which somebody sings, plays, talks and does anything. etc. We all have our own way of translating the material. In jazz everything is individual, having one’s own sound and approach. As I said phrasing is a general word like the word food. Within that overall expression are the ingredients that make something sound like jazz or country music or Beethoven.


3.    Besides the lyrics and the fear of risk taken while scatting, what differences have you noticed in the rhythmical phrasing of an instrumentalist in comparison to that of a vocalist, especially when playing the theme of a song or during their solos?


I have a lot of respect for singers who are good because you don’t press buttons or push keys. You have to find the pitch and it’s all within you with no instrument to fall back on. For singers there are certain limitations because you could never sing as fast as I can play. Obviously sometimes we (especially horn players) get a little carried away because we can move our fingers faster than our brains and ears leading to what I call a disease “fingeritis”!  That’s not a good thing. Singers have to also deal with the length of phrase a lot more than I do, because I can blow for longer than you can keep a breath.

Again, a singer has the disadvantage of not being able to just put their fingers down and play some phrases… they have to work on it and be really dedicated to getting the nuances and all the pitches correct. It is not easy and I have a lot of respect for singers who can do that.


4. Besides the obvious contribution of the story that lyrics offer into music, what more strong points or advantages does a singer have that could reinforce her/his role in the band?


When a singer is in front of the band it immediately draws the audience’s attention not just as a musical object but physically as well. When you are a singer the spotlight is on you big time and if you’re a woman it’s even more so. Therefore, before the first note is heard there is already a vibe by the physical presentation of the singer, standing in front and commanding attention. They have to be aware that they are setting the mood. Within a few bars of singing we hope that the attention is now on the music and not on the physicality of it. Again, the singer brings something special to the band, because everybody else has an instrument in their hands except you. So that creates more attention to the way you look and the way everything feels.

You’re producing sound with your body while we produce sound with our bodies through an instrument. Your instrument is your body.

On the positive side a singer can leave a lot more space easily because you don’t push buttons meaning your hands are free to help out with expression and feeling. And of course the singer has lyrics as a kind of secret weapon, meaning you have the story line, which immediately is felt by the audience. For example if you sing “now the moon is out”… it’s a perfect place to breath. If I go bapa-doo-bapa doo, I have to decide when I’m going to stop. So you have an advantage in this respect; that you can really leave space and use it to your advantage.


5.  How can a jazz musician achieve a more adventurous and interesting phrasing in your opinion?


The first level of learning something is imitating somebody else. We learn a lot by copying. And that’s what it is when you’re transcribing. You’re singing the way Hank Mobley is playing. And then you start to develop your own way of doing it and if you’re aware of that, you are going to probably come up with something unique. It might not be the invention of rocket science but it will somehow be you. When I hear Irini sing I know from the first four notes, I know that it’s her and not Stephanie, sitting alongside. And that’s something that happens naturally because it’s your personality coming through, but you have to work on it. You have to listen to yourself and see what it is there that’s not Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald or whomever, but you. It’s probably a mistake or something that wasn’t perfect because now it’s you and these things happen of course. So there’s a little bit of naturalness in somebody’s phrasing that can be noticed but also a lot of study has to go on. If John Coltrane and Miles Davis sat down and waited for the inspiration to come to them, we wouldn’t know who they were. They heard something and expanded on it. Being adventurous has to do with one’s personality and work ethic.

The first thing you do with the tape is to take notes of anything you need to correct. We stop the tape to say: “You know…I didn’t mean that G natural…. I really meant the G sharp…. let me play that”.

The second thing you do with the tape is listen for anything that sounds like it’s unique, even if it’s just one note that you sang in a certain way. Make that a separate piece or exercise and so on. The next time you sing “On Green Dolphin Street” you put that little thing in there…. you put it everywhere….you make a big thing out of a little thing. And it grows. It’s the seed that becomes a plant, that becomes flower, then becomes a tree. That’s the process. That’s why we tape. We don’t tape to sit there and say: “Oh look how wonderful this is.” That’s fun but the work is to be listening objectively, no criticism, no “good or bad”… just what it is and how can I do this better.


6.    What are the elements of phrasing itself that encourage the interplay within a band?


Again the most important element is going to be nuance, how do you take a note and make it yours. The second is rhythm.

The way you sing your eight notes and your rhythmic ideas will immediately have an effect on the rhythm section. That’s what they’re waiting for. They’re not waiting for the C7b9 really, but for the rhythmic information of the soloist to reach their ears and then for them to take that material and see what can be done with it. That’s how we have that musical conversation called spontaneous improvisation.


7.    What different types of interplay are there in your opinion?


There is the one night stand and then there is the group that you try to keep together. Hopefully you are performing with people who are better than you and more experienced. With people like that there are subtle signals that come through the band and the interaction is a result of the familiarity with the body of music that’s being played. That’s why we do jazz standards because everybody knows “Green Dolphin Street” and what goes on in the pedal point, etc. When it’s a group that knows each other it’s much more specific because I know how my piano player will phrase certain things since I’m used to him doing that, which gives me a big advantage. That’s why having an organized group affects the depth of the music. For myself, keeping a group together for years for me is extremely important because a lot of things are more understood without having to talk about them.

Last night I played with a wonderful drummer. When I stop, he should start to do more. If I’m phrasing and I like to stop and leave space, he’ll say ok that’s an opportunity for him to suggest the next activity. And that’s how the conversation which takes place between two musicians or three or four is what I am talking about. If the other musicians know how you play it is a big advantage towards the success of a performance. You start to take more chances which is inevitable because after a while you feel secure. I am thinking: “Let me try this” cause I know the drummer will save me and will give me the downbeat when I get lost. Confidence has a lot to do with what we’re talking about here. If you want to do something that’s a little different or unusual or something with the rhythm or phrasing, if you do it with a lot of conviction and believing it, even if it’s not perfect, a lot of times it works quite well. There are lots of things happening without consciously knowing it because we’re experienced in the music and that can sometimes be enough. There’s room for trying something and seeing what happens. And if something doesn’t work then you go back to the tape to listen.

I’ll tell you last night I played with this guy and a lot of times I was wondering if I’m at bar one or at bar five! (laughs) This is going to happen all the time. But we have to accept that; and it’s a fluid situation. The musicians are good enough to cover their tracks so that nobody knows it except the musicians.

I.K. Exactly, that’s so true. And it’s also a matter of trust and not getting criticism like “Oh, you lost the form…” 

D.L. No, no, no… There are no opinions here. It’s just objective analysis. No subjectivity. When it comes down to the music, there’s no good or bad. It’s just is.


8.    In what way(s) can the interplay become a sort of musical conversation?


The whole idea of jazz improvisation is to have a conversation about a subject that is agreed upon which may be the song or the tempo or the key, the lyrics or whatever. There’s constantly a conversation going on, no different than if I put four people around the table in a café and we talk about football. Everybody will have something to say. One person will have something brilliant to say, the other person will have nothing to say…  maybe with a lot of energy, maybe very soft. It’s exactly what people do when they’re talking about a subject. That’s what we do in jazz.


9.    How do you teach your students to become more elaborate and interactive while playing in a band?


First of all they have to do their homework as we said at the beginning. Look back to the imitation process and get it up to the highest level. That’s number one. When we get to the playing situation, you have to make them aware of what they’re doing, what they’re playing has possibilities beyond what they think…so you ignite a conversation.  That’s why the tape is so important to listen back. You might have done something and then it went unanswered or undeveloped. “Oh, man… I had a great idea on the third chorus and I left it instead of exploring it.” This is a kind of a self-analysis that you have to do.  You have to learn to be your own teacher. And that means looking at what you do, improving it, getting it as close to perfect as possible. Not to be obsessive about it but to be as excellent as you can. “How can I use this in a larger way than I’m using it now” and everything will follow when you start doing that. It takes its own course.

In the end, once you have a certain amount of vocabulary, you can be pretty much on your own. Once you do your homework as we call it, then you’re ready to take more chances and naturally feel more confident. These things follow each other.  

Irini Konstantinidi