Review Summary: Non-sterilised institutions.
In 2001, Joe Lovano won the Grammy award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. That happened after a decade of him being hailed as one of the top tier sax players of his era, after almost three decades of him being part of the jazz scene. Anyway, what has always intrigued me about jazz brass or reed players who are also great composers, is their ability to defy the physiological deficiencies of their instruments. Lacking blueprints for harmonic structures, that is. Yes, one can in theory use other means to appropriate harmony, counterpoint, polyphony, etc but the monophonic nature of, lets say, the saxophone, being their primary tangible familiarity adds extra value to a meticulous arrangement.
Joe Lovano’s mastery on the woodwind can be justified by the affiliation he has with the instrument since age six; there are a lot of players able to blow lines though. Those who realise and familiarise the concept of what lies beneath the lines, and are able to manipulate it on demand are the true powerhouses. Plus the brakes… the brakes of action, man… the breaths; after a while the improvisation is emanating from the composer and vice versa. Few can achieve the above as well as Mr. Lovano.
Joe Lovano’s arranging abilities could trace their origins back to his Berklee days, under Gary Burton. His knack for framing melodies on a real life environment though must be a direct effect of his time spent with Woody Herman’s or Mel Lewis’s orchestras. The big bands restrictive demands, provided the regulation -a non sterilised conservatory, for lack of a better analogy. One Ornette Coleman planted a different kind of seed though into a lot of players of Joe’s generation; and one will reap what he sows, but the soil certainly affects the outcome if I'm allowed to add.
The player-arranger hybrid you will hear on this 2009 release Folk Art
is a treat. Nine tracks are present, all original compositions: post bob because critics must categorise it somewhere. Sax lines venturing into avant-garde, piano and bass counterpoints in an academic yet vivid manner… and the brakes… the brakes of action, man... the breaths; I don’t care if they are arranged or not; after a while the improvisation is emanating from the composer and vice versa, as with all great music - regardless of genres.
Interesting choice of utilising two percussionists -Otis Brown and Francisco Mela- with the always evolving Esperanza Spalding on bass. A younger link to the ground for what would follow, mainly between him and seasoned sideman, pianist James Weidman; it works as evident in “Us five”. The sax lines in the title track stretch the piano modal vamp unconventionally, before Weidman takes the spot and back to bop we are again. Venturing into the ten minute mark, the tune comes full circle reminding us its origins. “Wild Beauty” is full of open space, with Lovano doing what he does best.
The earthly “Song for Judi” showcases further cohesion between the tenor sax and the talents of James Weidman. Drums, bass and soprano avant-isms in “Drum Song”, which meet during the middle part of the tune - deconstruct, construct, deconstruct. “Dibango” puts us back in groove; black and white key staccato now offers dissonant counterpoints and after James’s solo the tune culminates into Funk territories. The minimalistic “Page 4” evolves into a clarinet outing, providing the breathing space for what will follow in “Etterno” and time is not of the essence.
White Selmer altos come to mind during this outro, yet blowing out of different soils, something that's not restrictedly evident from the switch to tenor. What a lot of composers would do, by taking the improvisational extract we hear materialising in this tune and polish it into an arrangement, Lovano won’t. He wants us to witness the process as part of the composition itself - equal, if not superior to musical value - deserving front spot. This is his way of paying tribute to the ones who visualised the Shape of Jazz to come, or a reminder to all, of what folk art has always been about.
The jazz scene is comprised of folks coming out of 'Berklees'. The jazz scene is comprised of players coming out from institutions, cutting their teeth on the road, trying to recapture the glory - the feel - of the early days; it's kind of a retrospective approach to learning - most of 'em try to copy Bird, Ornette... Coltrane. Yet somewhere above the scene stands a tier of powerhouses: players defying physiological barriers - inherent deficiencies regarding their instruments, or deficiencies with regard to an era not too kind to improvisationists. They may have to spend decades to achieve what others do with a hit single. I’d like to call them musicians and regardless of genres, they may actually be the ones who can provide a relevant link; they glimpse back, always looking forward, carrying reference points to the future - adding attributes to the soil for those who care to follow. Joe Lovano is up there for sure, and this 2009 release is his gift to us, but mainly to those young players surrounding him.