Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach fire-up new Eastside Jazz Club

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The opening night of Birmingham's new Eastside Jazz Club featured a strong selection, in the form of a duo between saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach. These two are old playing colleagues in the Quest combo, who debuted way back in 1981. For this gig, though, Liebman and Beirach remained firmly in purist acoustic mode.

Eastside is, unusually, a jazz club within a university campus, something which might be a good move, although supposedly not risking the possibility of enhanced seediness sometimes found in such environments down the decades. Instead, there's the supportive backdrop of Birmingham Conservatoire, with an indigenous pool of players, as well as a close-proximity audience base. Drinking is encouraged, and food is available, although folks need to catch on to the fact that this can be whisked in from the reception area's café bar. There's even a specially-brewed Conservatoire cask ale, which should be pleasing to certain factions within the jazz scene. The stage is floor level in the long space, with different tiers of seating reaching right back to standing tables at the rear. There's also a long row of tall chairs along the right-hand side, overlooking the stage area. The sound quality is high, hitting just the right volume level for this space.

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The advertised duo of Liebman and Beirach played a set, but there was also the bonus surprise of an additional second half, where they were joined by bassist Mark Hodgson and drummer Jeff Williams. The latter is an old sparring partner of Liebman's, their association stretching back over four decades ago to the mid-1970s ECM albums Lookout Farm and Drum Ode. Liebman was, of course, initially renowned for his time with Miles Davis, in the early 1970s. Amusingly, his chief mentioning of the trumpeter during this evening was to dismiss his involvement in penning tunes that many folks feel should arguably be attributed to pianist Bill Evans: 'Nardis' and 'Blue In Green'. Although, close to the night's climax, the quartet did play 'All Blues'!

The duo set concentrated on a mostly introspective mood, savouring the intimate dialogue between saxophonist and pianist. The first piece was an arrangement of a Bartók bagatelle by the pianist, whose theatrical flourishes at the Yamaha grand were well in keeping with such a classicist root. Beirach repeatedly curtailed his resonant gestures with a sharp pedal cut-off, as if he wanted to enjoy several worlds simultaneously. Liebman played soprano on 'Tender Mercies', his phrases ringing around the piano's interior, before Beirach commenced. Their reading of ''Round Midnight' emerged into a rolling elaboration, with a husky tenor closure. Beirach's 'Testament' followed, and the first set's only foray into fierceness acted as a nod to the coming quartet expansion of the second half. This was Wayne Shorter's 'Paraphernalia'(from Miles In The Sky, 1968), taken at a fast clip, scampering like a bull, so to speak!

The quartet set operated on a much more aggressive plane, particularly when the Liebman-Williams union was struck up, repeatedly involving vigorous exchanging of phrases. The saxophonist chose lively soprano for 'Nardis', with the following 'Blue in Green' beginning as a pensive piano trio. As the set began to build, its most exciting numbers were yet to come: John Coltrane's 'India', with its ascending and articulate soprano flood, Williams getting inside a heavy drum whirlwind, and then 'All Blues' topped the night, Liebman and Williams reaching their apex, magnetising with an explosive tenor-drum duel, Beirach yelling out his encouragement.

– Martin Longley

– Photos by Nick Brown