[6 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Wild Beauty is not a contradiction in terms. Some things can be wildly beautiful, others can be beautifully wild. When it comes to music, people can have more difficulty reconciling the two. Music that contains “beauty” comes with tamed and tempered expectations, and music with “wild” elements tend to suggest the opposite. This is a quest that saxophonist Joe Lovano has been embarking on for many decades, establishing himself as a soloist in the post-bop landscape while steadily steering the jazz genre back to being known as “America’s classical.” If you haven’t followed Lovano for a while, Wild Beauty: Sonata Suite for the Brussels Jazz Orchestra is as good a spot as any for jumping back on the bus. He teams up with arranger Gil Goldstein and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra to record eight songs from Lovano’s back catalog—all of which happen to be personal favorites of his mother’s. In light of her passing, Joe Lovano dedicated this album to her.
Wild Beauty: Sonata Suite for the Brussels Jazz Orchestra has beauty and knows when to play its wild card, which, fortunately is seldom. The sound of the album relies less on a brassy big band and more on the core elements of traditional jazz. Solos and transitional passages play out more like a standard quartet with the piano, bass, and drums acting as the mortar. Not that the sound doesn’t have big band elements. “Powerhouse” is one example of the snap and swing one is accustomed to with all musical forms descended from the Duke and Basie. After all, there are five woodwinds, four trumpets, and four trombones in addition to the guitar and the rhythm section.
On the other end, you have tunes like “Streets of Naples”. Its eighth notes are played straight as a syncopated marching snare sets the pulse for one of the album’s least jazzy but most memorable tracks. “Miss Etna” is about a Sicilian volcano and has the harmonic temperament to match. “Our Daily Bread” is the album’s meditative middle, taking a cue from Coltrane’s prayer piece “Dear Lord”. The album ends with “Viva Caruso”, a slight bend back to large big band sounds, but with more cinematic ambitions than dance floor intentions. Wild Beauty: Sonata Suite for the Brussels Jazz Orchestra will also flex a little muscle to show just how odd some of Lovano’s writing was. Take “Big Ben”, for instance. Good luck transcribing that for a fake book. The melody is so dissonant and free of natural resolution that it really sounds like Lovano’s brain might have taken a day off. But no, the “Ben” in question is Ben Webster. Goldstein’s bold arrangement threatens to gum up the lines, but it’s pretty cattywampus to begin with. And who’s counting anyhow?
Wild Beauty: Sonata Suite for the Brussels Jazz Orchestra started as another way for Joe Lovano to cover himself. After selecting the eight tunes he wanted to record, he more or less said that the suite fell into place. In other words, it followed a very natural path to get to where it is now. Given how checkered the reputation of third-stream big band music is, a natural flow is about the most one can hope for. In other words, mamma would be proud.