Many jazz critics and fans consider Joe Lovano the best sax player on the planet. Lovano has won numerous Downbeat magazine awards (Downbeat is the living Bible of jazz), and has achieved superstar status within the insular musical community. However, no one, not even his greatest aficionados, considers him the next John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. No one doubts that Lovano possesses great technical gifts, a penchant for improvisation and exploration, a generous soul, or whatever qualities one attaches to the greatest jazz artists. But Lovano does not express the hopes, dreams, and fears of a larger, popular culture. Jazz has become the domain of the educated elite and has for at least the past 25 years. Jazz is American Classical Music, taught at universities and other institutions as part of the standard repertoire. Lovano’s contributions must be contextualized to be understood.
Or evaluated. Lovano’s latest CD displays the sax player’s skills and the demands of the small marketplace. With the exception of the pop-jazz of people like Kenny G, jazz artists do not move many discs. A small to midlevel rock band, say like Modest Mouse or Bright Eyes, sells many times more albums than someone like Lovano (or Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, and many other big name talents in contemporary jazz). What’s a hardworking, talented musician to do? Lovano mines the mainstream: he plays a standard (“Autumn in New York”), some of the classic repertoire (Coltrane’s “Crescent”, Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”), some self-penned pieces in the tradition (the title tune, “Bird’s Eye View”), and assembles a model combo (himself on alto and soprano sax, Hank Jones on piano, George Graz on bass, and Paul Motian on drums). The disc is even on Blue Note (now a wholly owned subsidiary of EMI rather than an independent, adventurous label). We could be in some cool, smoky jazz club from the ‘50s, but nah, we’re in a replica of one.
That said, Lovano and company cook. There’s a reason Lovano has won so many awards. His gift is strongly evident. For example, he takes the band through the paces on Oliver Nelson’s gritty “Six and Four”. Lovano constantly pushes the tempo and melody over the drumming and purposely leaves the piano and bass a beat or two behind. The sound sways the listener into the race, half-wanting the instruments to catch up to Lovano, half wanting him to soar beyond reach. Lovano can also take a ballad, like Thad Jones’ “Quiet Lady”, and let the melody linger in a way that lets the band get into a relaxed groove. Lovano makes room for big breaths and pauses without drawing attention to the spaces between notes.
The record company bills Joyous Encounter as the sequel to Lovano’s 2004 record with the same quartet, I’m All for You. The band members interplay with each other reveals their shared history. That’s part of Joyous Encounter‘s strength and weakness. The combo play perfect, but spontaneity is missing. This is jazz that sounds like American Classical Music, and one guesses Lovano and company perform it more frequently in front of college students than jazz clubbers. Much of the music played, with its subtle shading and phrasing that may get lost in a nightclub, would sound better in a concert hall.
Joyous Encounter offers many thrills for contemporary jazz fans, but other listeners will find the music less interesting. Lovano tries not to offend his core audience more than seek out a new one here. This is Lovano’s 17th disc for the Blue Note imprint, and those who own his others albums will find plenty to enjoy here. Those that don’t own any have little reason to make this one their first Lovano selection.