Jazz Album/Concert Review: Saxophonist Joe Lovano — x 2

By Steve Feeney

No matter his musical surroundings, there is never any doubt that it is Joe Lovano you are hearing.

Arctic Riff, Marcin Wasilewski Trio w/ Joe Lovano. Produced by Manfred Eicher and recorded at Studios La Buissonne in the south of France in August 2019. (ECM)

Joe Lovano – “Trio Fascination” – Live Stream from the Village Vanguard (7/3/20)

The Marcin Wasilewski Trio defines an approach associated with the legendary ECM label: the musical goal is to savor the moment by way of subtly shifting dynamics and delicately enriched harmonies. This Polish threesome has mastered the strategy, creating soundscapes that are right for our age of virus-induced anxiety: edgy restlessness yearning for a refined pensiveness.

Enter, as a guest, tenor sax master Joe Lovano on Arctic Riff, the trio’s latest disc. The 67-year-old Lovano is a veteran of various musical settings over a long career. His voice is adaptable — but always distinctive. No matter his musical surroundings, there is never any doubt that it is Lovano you are hearing. He can shake things up aplenty, but here he fits in with the program — he maintains a mostly gentle touch.

The group finds fertile common ground on two takes of Carla Bley’s “Vashkar,” a tune many musicians have found intriguing over the years. Lovano’s coloristic expressiveness contrasts effectively with the piece’s dark drama, which is well served by Slawomir Kurkiewicz’s bass work. Foreboding lurks in passages that nimbly interweave shadows and light. Rhythms percolate underneath — and they resonate mystery.

“Cadenza,” a group composition, is another strong piece. A piano/bass dialogue sets an edgy tone. Joined by sax and drums (Michal Miskiewicz), the foursome heats up, steaming the proceedings into what sounds like controlled chaos. But the arrival of a reflective piano passage cools things off — leaving at least this listener wishing for a bit more agitation.

Pianist Wasilewski serves up the feisty with his “L’Amour Fou,” a playful romp written with Lovano in mind.  After the trio revs things up, the saxman enters for an evocative excursion over a tumbling vamp, sounding like a wayward cosmopolitan lost amid a slew of upbeat romantic reveries.

The leader’s “Old Hat” ends the disc on a traditional note.  Lovano adds slathers of classic melancholy to a piece that tells a wistful tale.

It may have “Arctic” in its tile, but this disc, recorded last year in the south of France, provides plenty of warmth.

Lovano has spent many late nights at the Village Vanguard leading one band or another. For the latest in the club’s series of live stream concerts, the musician brought in his “Trio Fascination” for two sets over the Fourth of July weekend.  Featuring Ben Street on bass and the legendary Andrew Cyrille on drums (both masked throughout), the threesome offered an unfettered exhibit of Lovano’s concept. With these three, who needs a pianist?

In a preconcert bit of video played before the performance on July 3, the horn man confessed that the touring shutdown, due to the virus, had given him time to work “not just tunes but ways of playing.” That notion proved a key to appreciating this distinctive and salutary gig: Lovano’s intent was to blend the values of formal tradition into music that very much lives in the moment.

The Cleveland native worked through an opening trio of compositions: incantations resolved into melodic variations that in turn led to bluesy excursions and/or boppish reveilles. Separated by brief solos from Cyrille, during which the burly leader danced and swayed, the live stream gave us Lovano stretching out into several different directions.

“Road Trip” had the leader impressively switching between tenor, soprano, and alto saxes. At one point he offered a homage to Eric Dolphy by offering up a bit of clarinet above some gong-like cymbal work from Cyrille, the indefatigable octogenarian.

Street, fresh off working in the Billy Hart Quartet at the same location just a couple of weeks ago, provided a rich solo to Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years.”  He later grounded an exquisite take of Charles Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Lovano’s big tenor sound, especially on this piece, seemed to be channeling the brilliance of past masters. An elegant photo of Dexter Gordon to the left of the bandstand served as an avuncular guiding spirit.

There was a noticeable spring in Lovano’s step as the camera followed the saxophonist offstage at the close.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

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