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A Review of Contact: Five on One

Contact: Five on OneFive on One, the new album by Contact, is the sound of five guys on one wavelength.

There is some delightful music here rewarding an active listener with its subtle inventions and interactions. The atmosphere is mostly fairly restrained: no “passionate” show-boating, few extremes of mood, just inventive and beautiful music. You might not have heard of Contact but you have heard of some of the musicians: Dave Liebman, Billy Hart and John Abercrombie.

Liebman is a personal favorite of mine. He gave the most inspiring clinic talk I have ever heard; he lives, walks and breathes music and he is a great saxophonist. His resume of course reflects that: Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and Chick Corea (to name only three) chose him for their bands and Liebman has led fine bands of his own. He has a sinuous way with a melody and a sure footed ability to take a line far “out” and sound “in” simultaneously at times as well as a fabulous tenor saxophone tone and an an individual voice on soprano. Liebman is a giant of manipulating timbre, timing, note length and expression to manipulate every detail of a note.

Abercrombie, who made his name in Billy Cobham’s band which also featured the Brecker brothers, had a long association with ECM leading to some fabulous albums: “Timeless” with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette and “Gateway” with Dave Holland and DeJohnette; later making a series of records with Mark Johnson. He has the spiky melodicism of a Pat Metheny, a John Scofield or a Mick Goodrick but also an understated pastoral, sensitive way with a melody.

Drew Gress is the bassist here. He has often played in trios with the pianist Marc Copeland and they have an uncanny symbiosis. At times their relationship is so close and natural that the listener can just take it for granted and let it sweep over him. But such naturalness takes work and skill. New Jersey born, Philadelphia raised, New York resident Gress has developed a compositional approach to free jazz improvising, collaborating with the likes of Tim Berne, Ben Monder, David Binney and Uri Caine. Here Gress serves the music beautifully, understated at times, soloing beautifully and interacting incredibly well with the quintet who always play with open ears.

The legendary Billy Hart (Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner) is on drums. Hart, who started his career with soul bands like Sam and Dave, is a fabulously inventive and subtle presence here – full of personality while simultaneously serving the music. Hart is an excellent presence on this record: such inventive playing, never opting for the obvious and playing such fabulous games with time and tone. Marc Copeland, the pianist, alternatively minimal in the background and a powerful leading voice in the music has a long association with Abercrombie as well as with Gress, as mentioned. His sensitive and musical playing here whets my appetite to hear his trio with the guitarist and Kenny Wheeler.

This is an understated record at times. It doesn’t grab the listener by the throat. There’s a danger that, if you allow it to, it can drift over you like finely crafted mood music but active listening reveals a tapestry of colors, textures, tones and sounds and an immaculate interaction among the quintet. Five on One rewards careful listening.

The tracks range from “Send Up” – a swaying vehicle for Abercrombie and Liebman to “Childmoon Smile” – a delicious, delicate ballad displaying the empathy between Copeland and Gress and featuring Liebman’s scurrying soprano. “Like it Never Was” is one of my favorites, developing from soft slow melodies, building slowly to a beautiful 3/4 ballad featuring a deep-tones solo from Gress, Liebman’s stand-out, fabulous tenor and Copeland’s tension-filled piano explorations to a rolling 9/8 shuffle romp with angular wonders from Abercrombie. Hart is fabulous here as the band builds to an exciting climax.

Ballads and mid-tempo tracks predominate here. “Lost Horizon” is a serene ballad featuring Copeland’s relaxed mastery on piano. I love the way many of the melodies are voiced for Liebman and Abercrombie who have a natural affinity. “Lullaby for Imke” begins in suitably lullaby-like fashion with Copeland’s solo piano and develops into a fabulous group improvisation featuring subtle guitar and barreling tenor exchanging brief statements.

The free-ish “Four on One” features a delightful, skipping Ornette Coleman influenced melody over a clip-clopping beat from Hart. The track develops into a great example of simultaneous improvisation developing from captivating free jazz sections (including some dramatic playing from Copeland). Gress is in his element here, conversing and interacting constantly with the soloists and building a great freeform solo.

“My Refrain” and “Retractable Cell” are mid-tempo tunes with the former featuring Hart’s cross rhythms that gradually build intensity while the latter has an involved Latin sounding melody, beautifully introduced by piano and guitar and features some fabulous tenor improvisation from Liebman and short but intense solo from Abercrombie. The final track, “You and the Night and the Music” (the only standard among some fine compositions) is cleverly arranged and is a wide ranging performance – a very contemporary exposition with a marvelous obtuse approach to rhythm and which again features superb soloing from Liebman.

This might well be my favorite recording of Dave Liebman, he is in fine, fine form on this record in what is a splendid band. It’s played by five musicians who know each other well and play for the music rather than for themselves. It sounds like a band record, not an all-star record.

Well, it should. Not only are these five very empathetic human beings they have also played together a lot. As well as the connections I mentioned earlier, Liebman and Abercrombie played together as early as 1973 in “Lookout Farm”; and Liebman played with Hart in the 1980s. These five obviously enjoy playing together and I enjoy listening.

Five On One is available from Amazon.

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Phil Wain

I notice I misspelt Marc Copland’s name throughout. Sorry Marc!