Steuart Liebig: Little Things Put Together

8:00am | Steuart Liebig and Andy Sykora are performing tomorrow at Sipology, located on the corner of Broadway & Linden.  This free show, which will run from 7:30 – 8:30, is in conjunction with the opening of ‘Warning: The Wire is Wet,’ featuring art by Jeremy West, Edward Frausto, and Gabe Larson, and curated by Sumako of LVXEdge

Liebig is a masterful technical instrumentalist, composer, and improvisor.  He’s a central figure in the Los Angeles Jazz scene, collaborating with and supporting Vinny Golia, Nels & Alex Cline, and GE Stinson.  His original compositions defy easy categorization, blending unique instrumentation with a melange of styles, including modern classical, jazz, avant garde, and improv. 

Steuart: In general, I tend to write for groups of people, or instrumental groups, that I think are interesting or will have a nice synergy. So, I end up looking at things as compositional projects that most people would end up calling bands. I end up with three albums of one grouping, and three of another, and two of yet another, or at least variations on those basic groupings.

Sander: Would a good example be The Mentones?

Steuart: Sure. The Mentones grew out of me listening to a lot of Chess Records stuff and listening to early-ish Ornette Coleman stuff which, to me, just sounds like the Blues. I thought it would interesting to hear how a collision of those things would sound.

The concept became “Little Walter meets Ornette Coleman.” Now, that necessitates having a killer chromatic harmonica player, ’cause I tend to write fairly chromatic stuff. I knew that I had wanted to play with Tony Atherton on alto sax ’cause he’s seriously rocking and not a straight Jazzer. I asked him if he knew anyone. he said Bill Barrett. I also asked Wayne Peet. He said Bill Barrett. So I got together with Bill, and we hit it off. We got Joe Berardi on board and I wrote some stuff and it sounded pretty good. I wrote 39 tunes.

Sander: It has an almost Cajun flavor at times, but twisted…

Steuart: Cajun stuff?  Well, I pretty much ransacked American roots music, so there’s some of that in there too.

Sander: Did you start writing before you put the group together?

Steuart: You know, I was trying to remember that. It’s a long time ago. I had worked up a few ideas for a concert I did right after I broke up my band Quartetto Stig. A few tunes (Back Seat & White Cadillac, for instance) made into The Mentones but, basically, I recall writing maybe 4-5 things and then seeing how they worked with Tony, Bill and Joe.  When it seemed to go well, I just kept writing.

Sander: As you got to know the band better, did your writing change to suit the players?

Steuart: I’m not sure about that. I think I ended up relying more on how Joe played, because he brought an off-kilter sensibility to the proceedings.  Plus, he did all sorts of prepared drums. I had wanted a little bit of that ‘Harry Partch outsider aesthetic’ in the percussion sounds, and he brought that.

Sander: In Stigtette, you focused on winds and reeds.  Did that come from a desire to hear those instruments, or to work with the players?

Steuart: That was kind of a fluke. This is the third band that came out of the demise of Quartetto Stig. I had wanted to do something with flute, and the met Ellen Burr. I had met Scot Ray (trombone) and wanted a clarinetist (Eric Barber, who Scot introduced). The blend was unwieldy, and then Scot and Eric both left town. I had met Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon) and Andrew Pask (clarinets), and had some really good interactions with them. I took some of the ideas from the earlier stuff  and re-orchestrated them for flutes, bassoon and clarinets. Then I wrote more stuff as we played, and the chemistry was good.  So, it was circuitous on that one.  A little of everything.

I have about a full album’s worth of stuff for a Stigtette v2 with euphonium and two trumpets, with me doing electronics on my end, plus the bass.

By the way, the early Stigtette grouping, with Ellen, Scot and Eric, along with two members of Quartetto Stig (John Fumo and Jeff Gauthier), and Alex Cline,  became the core group for my album, Pomegranate.

[Sander here, just interrupting for a moment to mention that Steuart’s album, Pomegranate, features beautiful performances by featured soloists, including the legendary bassist Mark Dresser, Vinny Golia on Sopranino Sax, guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco, Geraldine Fibbers), and Tom Varner on French Horn.  It really is a beautiful work.]

Sander: In addition to your own compositional work, and work as a sideman, you’ve also delved deeply into experiemental stuff as well.  How did that evolve? 

Steuart: Parallel lines of investigation. Back when I was doing rock bands and Jazz stuff and writing “classical music” (or trying to), I was also doing stuff with a lot of electronics, and putting stuff into the bass strings. Now, it seems like it’s all one big thing to me. The challenge I’m dealing with now is trying to integrate my more electronic thing into my more compositional thing, which means getting into software and so forth. It is a whole new learning curve.

Part of the deal with Stigtette V1 was getting more of my “prepared bass” and alternate technique stuff into the pieces.  If you want to know the roots of experimental stuff with me, part of it might be that my High School [music] theory teacher was a Harry Partch disciple. That, plus my mom having sung 20th century stuff sorta primed me.

I guess I’m also a little bored by doing only standard electric bass. I want to try to do other stuff with it. Make it sound like a percussion instrument, or a koto… that sort of thing.  It’s part of where I go. I try other stuff, too. I guess I’m into broadening vocabulary and color. To me, it’s all about having the tools at hand to create something in an orchestral way. I’m not sure that I’m doing much that’s totally different than anybody else. I just hope I’m doing something interesting with it, ya know?

Sander: Sure!

Steuart: I guess I want to go from Larry Graham to Heavy Metal to Anton von Webern to George Crumb. Ya know, the usual.

Sander: And some Fred Frith?

Steuart: Yeah, and some John Lee Hooker, Xenakis. The list is ENDLESS.

Sander: In your performance with Andy on Saturday, it will be purely improvised, right?  Does that allow you to bring all these seemingly disparate components together?

Steuart: Yep, complete improv. We’ve heard each other play, but haven’t played before.  I’m expecting a nice first meeting. I figure this one’s going to be a little bit more ambient, hopefully not too chill, but that’s the vibe I’m expecting.  Probably not too bluesy, but we’ll see.

That being said, I almost always throw some ‘groove thing’ in there, even if I don’t expect anyone to play with the groove. I like rhythm and repetition, so there’s almost always the potential for that. It’s good for me and good for the listener. Also, i was a huge Mahler fan for a while, and took his “symphony should reflect the world” thing to heart. So that’s part of the world, right? Humans are all sorts of little things put together, and the body (groove) is a big part of it. I go with that, along with the emotional, intellectual and spiritual sides of things.  At least that’s a goal.

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