This is the introspective face of High Modern jazz that has the die-hard fans slavering. Furthermore, on the strength of this release, at the end of the year various journals will duly vote Joe Lovano the Best Tenor Player, as they have done on numerous previous occasions. However, the public at large, in the unlikely event that they happen to come across Flights of Fancy, will see it as a perfect example of all the reasons why they don’t like experimental jazz. Not exactly in a spirit of compromise, more one of vain hope, I would venture to suggest that this set is neither quite as flawless and risk-taking as Downbeat readers will argue, nor is at as unapproachable as the rest of the world will assume.
Lovano doesn’t do me many favours though. The project presumes an insider’s knowledge and is at times austere to the point of Puritanism. It is also relentlessly complex in its structures and conceptual frameworks. No dancing and no chatting at the bar allowed, I’m afraid. As a counterbalance, Lovano’s considerable lyricism gradually shows itself and on some of the less fragmented songs an atmosphere is produced that is suspiciously romantic. Not too emotional, of course, matters remain largely cerebral, but Lovano is in his own way a master of mood. Discovering that does take some effort but the rewards are there.
From his early years in Cleveland, where his father was a good enough sax to be in Tadd Dameron’s band, to his time at Berklee and then to early success with organ groove merchants Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith, Lovano has been one of life’s explorers. He has played in every style and has recorded prolifically in the last 10 years. Steeped in the tradition, he has always tried to move ahead and avoid repeating himself. On this record Lovano is interested in the trio form, but having produced one trio work of some note (Trio Fascinations, 1998), here he has perversely formed four trios for and in one session. As more than one trio is involved on some of the tracks it can get a little confusing
I will try to keep it simple (something Lovano would not deem a virtue). All trios feature Lovano on tenor though he does dabble in other instruments as well. Trio One consists of sax, bass and drums, Trio Two—sax, reeds and drums, Trio Three—sax, harmonica and piano and Trio Four—sax, trumpet and bass. Each of the trios has a different sound and a different approach to the material. By splicing sessions together two separate trios can be heard (sequentially) on the same track. Are you still with me? As a rule Trio One is the safest bet—late modernism , played well. Trios Two and Four lean more towards Coleman-Cherry avant-gardism and will either be the high spots or the point at which you eject the CD depending on your take on free jazz. Trio Three is just weird. A freeform sensibility is tied to the very conventional harmonica of Toots Thielemans no less. My guess is these are the numbers the jazz buffs will least like.
So what of the music? It ought to be a complete mess—and some numbers on first listen are. It might be worth giving the opener “Flight of Fancy” a go and then treat the disc like those questionnaires that say move on to a certain place depending on your answer. If you like the tone of Lovano’s tenor but find the arrangement a little out the window jump to track eight and the lovely ballad “Bouganvillea” (Trios One and Three). From there go to Trio One’s reasonably straightforward take on McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha” which is wistful and appealingly contemplative.By then you should be sufficiently taken with the endeavour to give the more jagged pieces a try. On the other hand if you like the liveliness of the title track, jump to the angular exchanges of “Hot Shot” which is a cheery call and response piece and quite funky in its own way. If it is the spirit of waters uncharted that appeals just plough straight through the album and enjoy an uneven but always thoughtful set. I guarantee that whatever your take a second listen reveals much more structure and melody than on first encounter.
Many of the numbers are not so much versions as inversions of standards. “On Giant Steps” is an abstract reading of the already fairly abstract Coltrane classic. “On April” is “I Remember April” but only just. Something here speaks of a musician who is weary of endlessly running through the canon and is determined to find something new to say. I think that is laudable but it is surely not as mould-breaking as all that. The notion of a music that challenges the limitations of the music’s boundaries has become as meaningless in jazz as in modern art. The boundary fences have long since been dismantled. The freer numbers, in fact, are the ones that sound stale and heard-it-all-before. The tunes where there is a tension between form and free statement have more to say and are the most satisfying (which is why I like Thielemans role).
Skilful as much of the playing is, no musician matches Lovano’s ease and grace. Idris Muhammad (Trio One) is a fine drummer but the first Flight was graced by Elvin Jones and there is no-one here who puts in a performance close to that one.The three way conversations compensate but it is a surprise that there are no really memorable solos other than the leader’s. It must be stressed however that the saxophonist does not overwhelm his companions and the sections that stick in the mind are nearly all to do with the combination and contrast of voices rather than any single offering.
In the end this record will confirm rather than enhance Lovano’s reputation. It has that seriousness to which nearly all modernisms aspire and that does become a little sombre and vaguely pompous at times. But the good outweighs the bad and it is a “grower”. If all music sounded like this we would be in trouble. But if there was nobody still prepared to examine the warp and weft of what constitutes jazz, or any other form for that matter, the loss would be greater.