Discussing Steve Grossman (2): Interview with Dave Liebman

Among the post-Coltrane generation of saxophonists, Steve Grossman is commonly believed to have been the one with the greatest raw talent. He set the saxophone world on fire when he burst onto the scene with Miles Davis in the late 60s and built on that reputation with the Elvin Jones Quartet in the early 70s. By the time his debut recording, Some Shapes to Come, released in 1973, the future looked bright for an emerging tenor heavyweight. But this was not to be, as he developed a pernicious drug habit that severely hampered his development as an artist. He released some recordings of quality over the ensuing years and played on many great sessions as a sideman, but the output was inconsistent at best. 

Though he lived to be 69, passing away in 2020, it’s not hard to see how Steve Grossman has become an obscure name to today’s generation, overshadowed by similarly talented and far more driven contemporaries like Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. Most jazz historians pay little attention to his place as an innovator on the instrument (though Mark Stryker’s obituary is highly recommended), a reality for which he largely has himself to blame. Discussing Steve Grossman is a five-part interview series that aims to correct those aforementioned oversights and help to rebuild the tarnished legacy of his life and music.

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This conversation with Dave Liebman (*) is the second of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.

Dave Liebman & Steve Grossman. Photo courtesy of the Dave Liebman Private Collection

London Jazz News: When and how did you meet Steve Grossman?

Dave Liebman: I met him at a jam session at an army base on Staten Island. He was jamming with some other people. The only one that I know was a piano player Mike Garson, who was a very close friend of mine; my first associate to play with musically. In any case, I came in and this kid – I think he was like fifteen, sixteen years old – blew me away. At first, there was a little bit of a rivalry between us. And me being older, I thought it was my responsibility to cool it out. So we had a meeting at his parents’ house in Long Island. “We’ll be stronger together than separate” and “you’ll be Trane and I’ll be Pharoah [Sanders]”, that was kind of our relationship. I played a little looser, he played all the vocabulary and everything.

He was a very easygoing person. We had a good time together for a couple of years. He was my closest friend during that period of Elvin and Miles as it became jazz history…..the post-Coltrane generation. He went to Juilliard and at the same time became a very regular visitor at my loft on West 19th Street in Manhattan. He would do school and then he’d come over on Monday night and we’d start hanging out, listening and playing. I had a loft where you could come any time. I had drums, a serviceable piano, etc. We became close, and then, of course, the gig with Elvin Jones cemented our relationship. Also, he had been with Miles Davis and then I was with Miles. You know, we did a little four-year dance there: Me with Elvin, him with Miles; then me with Miles, him with Elvin. 

LJN: He was hired by Miles after Wayne Shorter left the band and was only eighteen at the time. By many accounts, he didn’t necessarily have the best relationship with the rhythm section at the time

DL: Well, they tended to play over him instead of under him. You can hear it on Black Beauty and Live at Fillmore East. He was not an episodic player, he was more of a flow through; you know, he’d start here and end up over here.

I can’t tell you what happened with Miles. He got fired, I guess. Miles did say something to me once: “It takes Steve too long to get to the microphone!” I think he wanted the flow to happen without him. He’d stop in unusual places, and that would be a place where the saxophone would normally jump in. Wayne would jump right in after Miles’s solo. But, if you have to wait eight bars or twenty-four bars or something, it kind of takes away from the group flow. I don’t know if I heard it correctly or what. But, it’s true, in those days, everyone was wired up so there were a lot of cables on the ground….dangerous!! 

LJN: What was it like to be part of the quartet with Elvin, Grossman and Gene Perla?

DL: To be in a band with Elvin Jones was like a dream come true. I had to pinch myself. He was very nice, not intimidating. I mean, he had his way of communicating and at times it could be a little bit edgy, but he was a bandleader and he had all the right to do what he wanted to. Myself, Gene and Steve were thrilled to be with Elvin. it was reported that he said it was his favourite of all the bands he had. It was an honour, a privilege and a great learning experience: Especially things about playing behind the beat, or how to play a ballad. If I wasn’t playing the melody somewhere, he’d yell out, “Play the melody!”….and everybody could hear it (laughs).

L-R: Steve Grossman, Gene Perla, Elvin Jones & Dave Liebman. Boston, 1972. Photo courtesy of the Dave Liebman Private Collection

LJN: How did the band first come into being?

DL: Gene was very adamant about getting this band together. After he was hired, he said, “I’m gonna get you and Steve in the band… watch me.” And, sure enough, he got it done. We were chosen by the greatest drummer who ever lived to be his accompanists. It was quite a thrill and it was quite an honour. We treasured it very much and it put us on the international scene. After all, Elvin was responsible for the Coltrane engine. 

LJN: It was an unusual lineup, especially the two-tenor frontline. Did you ever have any issues balancing your respective roles?

DL: We never spoke about it. When a tune would come in, one of us would say “I’ve got it”. I thought we mixed it up pretty nicely, but you’re right, two tenors was unusual. Chordless bands were unusual. You know, the common thing was a quartet with a piano or guitar or something, which Elvin did have on occasion. We did do some gigs where a piano guest like Hank Jones or Chick Corea played.

LJN: Drugs eventually sidetracked Grossman’s musical career. Were you aware at the time that his substance abuse was becoming a problem?

DL: Well, I only know him from that time because we didn’t really communicate for decades after this period. Not for any particular reason, just, it didn’t come up. He had his own life and lifestyle, obviously, and I can’t speak for anything except the time that he was with me and Elvin. We all did a little bit of something then. We had a friendly relationship with certain drugs, psychedelics mainly. That was the 60s and the 70s, and that’s what you did when you were young and an artist. He went on for years with his ups and downs, and his health and operations and so forth. But he always played great.

LJN: The influence of Sonny Rollins really seems to dominate his later recordings. Do you have any insights into why he made that stylistic change?

DL: He loved Sonny, and rightfully so. But he never went back to the way he played with Miles or Elvin, especially with Miles when he was into something very unusual with a lot of potential: It was one palette, baisically one colour, but it was different and you would have expected that he would pursue it when he left Miles. You know, I never had the chance – and it wouldn’t have been right – to ask him, “How come you didn’t pursue that direction?”. But again, it became Sonny Rollins and he did it better than anybody, that’s for sure.

LJN: You have said in the past that Grossman was the ‘best’ of your generation, the post-Coltrane generation. Do you still believe that?

DL: Oh yeah, no question. But he stood still, that’s the problem. In this music, it’s not one day that you’re judged on. You’re judged on your whole body of work, and he didn’t have that. There are little tidbits here and there, but he did a disservice to himself and the public. To me, it was more sad than anything else.

(*) LINK: Dave Liebman’s website / biography


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