The Bickel / Marks Group’s front line of Matt Vashlishan on alto and jazz veteran Dave Liebman on soprano and tenor sound great individually and collectively. Virtuosity and taste are abounding with these guys. Dennis Marks, Doug Bickel, and swingin’ drummer Marco Marcinko make for a strong and pliable rhythm section. Together these gentlemen tell an engaging story, where the music is full of lyricism, unexpected twists and turns, and positive energy. - Bob Mintzer
Friends and collaborators since their college days at the University of Miami, pianist Doug Bickel and bassist Dennis Marks played together in the Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and Arturo Sandoval bands during the 90s before embarking on careers as esteemed music educators (Bickel is presently on the faculty at the University of Miami, Marks at the University of North Florida). Over the years they’ve also developed a rare chemistry in the context of their longstanding Bickel/Marks Group. Now, after 20 years together, their musical partnership has finally been documented on this auspicious self-titled debut. “We actually recorded a demo in 1991 with this group, but this is our first official release,” explains Bickel.
You can hear their easy, seasoned rapport on this collection of originals, which runs the gamut from Marks’ urgently burning opener “Sparrows and Sidewinders” to Bickel’s sweetly lyrical “Finding Your Way,” from Marks’ provocative “Turnover” to Bickel’s stirring “The Jazz Behemoth” and his soothing “On the Outside Looking In.” As Bickel says, “Both of us have very eclectic influences as composers and we just try to bring it all together to contribute to the big gumbo of what we have to offer.”
Bickel and Marks had one other special spice to add to their musical gumbo – sax great Dave Liebman. Renowned for his work during the 1970s with jazz icons Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, Liebman is a highly respected composer, improviser and educator as well as one of the major living exponents of the John Coltrane legacy (evident on such superb recordings as 1987’s Homage to John Coltrane, 1998’s John Coltrane’s Meditations and 2004’s Gathering of Spirits with the Saxophone Summit, featuring Liebman with Joe Lovano and the late Michael Brecker). His strong contributions on tenor and soprano saxes elevate the proceedings throughout this ambitious outing. “We both love Dave and have played with him before,” says Marks, alluding to a gig 20 years ago when Liebman appeared as a special guest with their University of Miami Concert Jazz Band. “We thought it would be a nice idea to record a project with someone of that caliber, and I think he sounds absolutely amazing on these songs. He doesn’t try to take it outside of where it is. He just plays the tune really beautifully in his own way.”
For his part, Liebman says, “This was a nice date because I walked in with two guys who knew each other well and had a program organized, something that is not often the case. And Doug's knowledge is immense, making it a real pleasure to play with him.” Liebman’s longstanding drummer Marco Marcinko and his young protégé, alto saxophonist Matt Vashlishan, also provide stellar input on this impressive offering.
They come out of the gate charging hard on “Sparrows and Sidewinders,” which is infused with incendiary, Trane-like energy (indeed, catch Liebman’s quote from “Mr. P.C.” during his torrid solo, which follows on the heels of an urgently burning alto solo from Vashlishan). Liebman switches to soprano on “Finding Your Way,” blending elegantly with Bickel’s piano on this effervescent melody before launching into a flurry of cascading notes on his beautifully warm-toned solo. “It was an interesting juxtaposition to see Liebman play on a tune like that,” says Bickel of his engaging composition. “It’s not necessarily the kind of tune you’d normally hear him play on, but I had an idea of how he might paint a painting over that kind of different groove and it actually came out pretty much exactly the way that I figured it would, as far as his improvisation on it.”
“Home” is a gentle jazz waltz, underscored by Marcinko’s sensitive brushwork, which Bickel and Marks had co-penned 20 years ago during a road trip in Upstate New York.
“Dennis was living in New York at the time and I came to visit him sometime in the Fall,” says Bickel. “I remember we drove somewhere to see the leaves change, and we ended up writing that in the car as we were driving in the Catskills mountains. I wrote a portion of it, then Dennis wrote a few bars and I wrote the last part of it. We seem to work well together, even though this is actually one of the few compositions we’ve done that way.” Adds Marks, “We were just driving along and being inspired by the very beautiful scenery…the leaves were changing colors and everything. It’s amazing how that can really affect music.”
Marks’ provocative “Turnover” travels through episodes of angularity, rubato introspection and freewheeling swing highlighted by some playful exchanges between Bickel’s piano and Vashlishan’s urgent alto. Bickel and Liebman engage in a conversational piano-soprano duet on a poignant reading of the Rodgers & Hammerstein number “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” (from the 1957 musical Cinderella). “That was actually Dave’s choice,” says Bickel. “He had a very specific arrangement for that tune where pretty much every note was harmonized. He laid that on me in the studio and that was me sight-reading it with him on the spot. Amazingly, we got it on the first take.”
Liebman’s impassioned tenor solo on the McCoy Tyner-ish track “The Jazz Behemoth” is another highlight of this dynamic outing (and yet another connection here to the Trane legacy). “I wrote that tune about 10 years ago,” says Bickel. “And every time I’d explain it to a sax player I’d say, ‘Oh, play it like Liebman would play it.’ So finally I just got Liebman to do it and it actually was exactly what I had envisioned.”
Bickel’s affecting trio number “On the Outside Looking In,” which blends his sparse piano accompaniment with Liebman’s lyrical soprano sax and Marcino’s minimalist percussive colors on the kit, has a whimsical quality that one wouldn’t immediately associate with Liebman’s playing. As Bickel puts it, “His whole legacy is a little more on the dissonant, ‘out’ side with twisted harmonies and improvisational abandon. But here he plays very beautifully on this very sweet and soothing piece, which ebbs back and forth between a balladic feel and a waltz feel.”
The finale is “Truncated Theme,” Marks’ extrapolation on Miles Davis’ beboppish “Theme” from 1951. Marcinko’s extended drum intro sets the tone for this aggressive track, which cleverly alludes to the chord changes to Coltrane’s chops-busting anthem “Giant Steps.” And Liebman ups the ante with an intense, take-no-prisoners tenor solo. Marks adds some heat of his own with a fleet-fingered bass solo on this kinetically swinging closer.
Long overdue, The Bickel/Marks Group stands as a crowning achievement by these two kindred spirits and fellow jazz educators.
– Bill Milkowski
Recorded March 17, 2009 at Red Rock Studio, Saylorsburg, PA. Engineered and Mastered at Red Rock Studios by Kent Heckman. Produced by Dennis Marks and Doug Bickel. Mixed by Kent Heckman and Dennis Marks. Photography by Bill Keefrey. Package design by Al Gold. Executive producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.