In the philosophical tradition of Taoism, “Chi” is the word used to describe the animating force of the universe, the breath of life that permeates all existence. A natural phenomenon, when channeled it can provide a spark to ignite seemingly supernatural powers. In their first meeting as a trio, saxophone great and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman and virtuoso percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake tap into that spiritual force to create Chi, a transcendent collaboration deeply possessed of fresh inspiration and deep roots, ancient traditions and modern invention.
Chi brings together these three master musicians for a breathtaking excursion into spontaneous composition, an extended, adventurous set of free improvisation that maintains a throughline of resilient architecture and unexpected twists and turns. Nowhere revealing the tenuous moments that might be expected in an initial collaboration, the music is vivid and powerful from beginning to end, evoking timeless traditions while surging forward with ferocious abandon.
“Taoism is all about being in tune with our true nature,” Rudolph explains. “Chi is all about the yin and yang of receptivity and action. Musically, that becomes the ebb and flow of listening and generating ideas. The music on Chi was so successful because everyone was listening and letting the music happen in a very natural, organic, spontaneous way.”
Chi captures what was, until that moment, the only time these three pioneering artists had shared the stage together. Recorded on a spring evening at The Stone at the New School in New York City, the freely improvised set is fueled both by the vitality of new encounters and the unparalleled chemistry of longstanding relationships.
“There’s real freedom going on in this music,” Rudolph continues. “I feel like anything that I can imagine, Dave and Hamid will be able to hear and understand it, and respond to it through their creative action.”
Rudolph and Drake share a nearly half-century of history together, dating back to their teenage years in Chicago. The two met in a downtown drum shop when both were 14 years old, and have since enjoyed a profound personal and creative friendship. In the decades since they’re worked together with such greats as Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef, Fred Anderson, Pharoah Sanders and Hassan Hakmoun and in each other’s ensembles.
“We grew up sharing a similar pursuit,” Drake says. “The music, of course; not only the history of the various musical traditions that we’re interested in but also the cosmology of those traditions, the spiritual practices that informed or fed those musical genres.”
In both Drake and Rudolph, that spiritual element has fueled a never-ending search that has led both to constantly pursue new avenues of expression and exploration. Traveling those parallel pathways, that continual seeking has allowed their decades of collaboration to be renewed and invigorated each time they’ve convened. “When you’ve known someone for a long time but you also share a creative pursuit, that feeds into and gives energy to the relationship,” Drake says. “My relationship with Adam continues to be refueled. It’s not just the embers; new logs are always being put on the fire.”
The addition of Liebman’s singular voice certainly stokes that already blazing flame. While this recording marks the veteran saxophonist’s first meeting with Drake, he’s been enjoying a fruitful collaboration with Rudolph over the last several years. The pair first worked together during another of the percussionist’s residencies at the original Stone in 2016, then expanded to a trio with the inventive Japanese-born percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani for the RareNoise release The Unknowable.
Long before that, however, Rudolph and Drake had deeply immersed themselves in Liebman’s voice via his influential work with such icons as Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. “Dave Liebman was one of the people who was committed to pushing the music forward,” Drake says. “When Adam and I were studying Miles’ music, at the time when he started moving into other dimensions, Dave was a strong force in that movement. So as players coming up and trying to delve into that, he was one of the exemplars for us. And he continues to remain open to many different types of music and musical vocabularies.”
Liebman has always found a great source of inspiration in the sound of the drums, making him an ideal partner for the two virtuosic percussionists. As far back as 1974, his Liebman’s second album as a leader was titled Drum Ode and featured a stellar gathering of percussionists from various traditions that included Bob Moses, Barry Altschul, Badal Roy, Patato Valdez, Collin Walcott and Jeff Williams.
Rudolph pays Liebman the high compliment of calling him a “rhythmist,” a term he reserves for only the most simpatico of improvisers. “Not every ‘melody’ player is a rhythmist,” he explains. “That means having a really evolved sense of phrasing and timing. Dave went through the Elvin Jones and Miles Davis schools, and you have to be a supreme rhythmist to go through those experiences. Hamid and I have developed a unique language together, and Liebman can not only hang with that but thrive in it and add to the mix with a multiplicity of layers and interweaving thematic threads.”
“The drum has always been a focal point of my playing career,” Liebman says. “The more the better. In this case, when I turned around and saw what these two guys had in back of me, it was like a Hollywood set. If you sit in the middle of all that rhythm, you’re definitely going to play something different and hopefully adventurous.”
That battery of instrumentation includes Rudolph’s trademark hand drumset, which includes kongos, djembe and Tarija, as well as a variety of other percussion instruments and the three-stringed Gnawa lute known as the sintir. Drake supplements his drumset prowess with the thunderous frame drum and his own arsenal of percussion. In addition, both Rudolph and Liebman take turns at the Stone’s piano, while Rudolph adds multiphonic vocals as well as the limitless possibilities offered by electronic processing.
Liebman is particularly excited by the transformative effect of Rudolph’s electronics, an interest that dates back to the percussionist’s days in the groundbreaking electronic music program at Oberlin College. “I love the different textural elements it contributes,” Liebman says. “If my back is turned and I hear something going on, I don't know if it’s coming from Adam or from Hamid, from a machine or form outer space.”
The album initiates with otherworldly electronic shimmers on “Becoming,” as the sound of bamboo flute is mutated into ricocheting breaths against the stark tolling of piano keys and Drake’s subtle interjections on his cymbals. The piece builds in intensity with the entrance of Liebman’s soulful tenor before abruptly dissipating.
“Flux” begins with the subtle, interlocking rhythms of Rudolph and Drake, which Liebman then weaves a serpentine path through and around. The momentum builds like an avalanche before hanging suspended for a moment on the saxophonist’s breathy soprano. His wisps of melody become warped into spirals of sound via Rudolph’s processed echoes, which Drake engages in a playful tug of war.
A suspenseful, prodding dialogue between the two percussionists opens “Continuum,” eventually pierced by the plaintive wail of Liebman’s soprano, establishing a tension that is maintained thrillingly through the remainder of the piece. “Formless Form” begins on a dark, ominous note with Liebman’s ruminative piano accented by faint percussion atmospherics. The piece is a masterpiece of slow build, from the gripping use of space to an exhilarating cavalcade of discordant eruptions.
The compelling power of the drums is evident in the rapturous conversation that opens the album’s longest piece, “Emergence.” The instant rapport of these three masters is nowhere more in evidence than in the sustained structure and organic evolutions of this 13-minute piece, which moves from the sinuous dance of Liebman’s soprano with Rudolph’s vocals to hypnotic grooves and wrenching howls. Rudolph’s sintir provides the foundation for album closer “Whirl,” utterly mesmerizing in its fluid momentum.
While the life force it attempts to describe has been given many names across a wide swath of cultures, the trio chose the Taoist word Chi due to Rudolph’s and Drake’s shared study of the Chinese martial art and health exercise T’ai chi ch’uan. “This life philosophy has informed our worldview,” Rudolph says. “Being in tune with each other’s chi and the chi around and about us is where this group works really well. Approaching the musical moment with humility and receptivity: that’s the philosophy of this music.”
released February 22, 2019
Dave Liebman soprano and tenor saxophones, piano (“Formless Form”), wooden recorder
Adam Rudolph handrumset (kongos, djembe, tarija) piano (“Becoming”), sintir,
multi-phonic vocal, percussion, electronic processing
Hamid Drake drumset, vocal, frame drum, percussion