A fruitful musical friendship simply lifts off the ground, light as air.
Jazz can be so burdened. Is it an art form in decline? Are all its original masters finally gone? Has modern technology destroyed its pliant swing? Is anyone buying it? Has Wynton Marsalis cocooned it in the past? Is it relevant? Compromised? Alive?
These are questions for critics to debate, perhaps. But jazz musicians just keep playing.
And there may be no more playful exponents of the form today than Joe Lovano and Hank Jones in duet. The name of this concert recording is Kids -- and oh, how they play.
The joke of the title, of course, is that Lovano and Jones are hardly kids. Lovano, playing now at the height of his musical powers, is 54. Steeped in jazz since his dad, tenor player Tony "Big T" Lovano, dragged him to the best Cleveland jam sessions as a boy, Lovano is currently one of the most imposing reed players in the music. Jones, however, makes Lovano seem like a pimply-faced teen -- he will turn 90 next year. A veteran of the territory bands of the '30s and '40s as well as countless top groups since he moved to New York and became a citizen of the world (accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, sideman for Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane), Jones is jazz royalty.
Together, however, these two deeply mature talents more than live up to the title of the record. Caught live at the Jazz at Lincoln Center small club, this recording is a record of one evening's frolic. Though the experience and life that went into this music is daunting, its expression is light as vapor -- the music is incandescent and breezy, sparkling and easy. Lovano and Jones make you feel that you could play the music like this yourself on a good day. But you couldn't.
The best work here is simple enough to describe. Jones, with his assured but light touch, plays jaunty, stride/bop accompaniments while Lovano tosses the melodies into the air and spins them like he is Meadowlark Lemon in Madison Square Garden. The feeling of time is loose, and the precision of the interaction is perfect. In that seeming oxymoron -- a casual precision -- the collaboration takes glorious flight.
The partnership is not new. Over the last three years, this is the third recording from Jones and Lovano. Two quartet dates on Blue Note with bassist George Mraz and drummer Paul Motian preceded Kids, and the group toured together. The work is picking up speed. I'm All for You (2004) was a lovely set of ballad standards. Joyous Encounter (2005) lit a fuse under the band, featuring more adventurous titles by Thelonious Monk and Coltrane.
But Kids is the cream of the crop, steeped in equal parts modern and pre-modern jazz yet sounding fresher and more immediate than the nuest thing out there. Being contemporary, it turns out, just means having lots of fun as you play.
Many of the titles here spin bebop melodies into cotton candy. The opener, "Lady Luck" (penned by Jones' brother, Thad), has a tumbling line that bounces up in crafty intervals and then uses a string of hip, modern jazz notes to finish the lick. Lovano plays it like he was born to, with a fuzziness to his tone that becomes brawny and expressive as he improvises. Jones does what he is famous for: he sounds at once elegant and barrelhouse, both light and earthy.
Confession: Hank Jones is my idol. During the 1970s, when jazz musicians were taking refuge in pit bands and fusion groups, Jones was under contract with CBS. As a kid, I saw him play regular solo piano for some kind of talk show, and I was entranced. His left hand was a whole band -- but cool and easy -- and his right hand played melodies that put the blues up inside a serpent and let them slide in the hippest way all over a tune. Now, 35 years later, Jones is just as lovely and just as cool.
He plays two solo pieces here. "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" is given a gentle re-harmonization that sounds like a harp and then dances and bubbles into a solo that, without ever flirting with "out" playing, has the quality of delightful surprise at every turn. "Oh, Look at Me Now!" may be even more charming. A tune that isn't regularly recorded by contemporary jazz players, this track is put forth like a three-minute pop song: all pleasure.
The more conventional repertoire choices for this record work equally well. "Budo" is a well-known bop anthem, but Jones's comping keeps the work light and easy rather than merely a rush of shifting chords. This feeling suits Lovano perfectly, eliciting his lightest sound -- as if he were tap-dancing on the tenor saxophone, if such a thing can be imagined. Monk's "Four in One" is so commonly played by today's jazz players that it is joyous to hear it fresh -- with Lovano starting with a solo sax cadenza and the main melody, then Jones jumping in cautiously, then in a stuttered Latin feeling that moves graciously into syncopated dialogue with Lovano.
It is tempting to run through every track on the album -- the lovely soprano saxophone sound and orchestral accompaniment of "Lazy Afternoon", for example -- but maybe a music review should be as conscious of revealing "spoilers" as a review of the new Harry Potter book. It should go without saying that I dream of the day when the latest recording from Joe Lovano or Hank Jones causes adults and kids to both line up at Barnes & Noble at midnight so they can get their hands on it immediately. Kids contains magic aplenty -- and spells and duels and wizardry too.
Kids is for all ages and of the ages.