Joe Lovano: Streams of Expression

Two suites of complexly orchestrated jazz that update The Birth of the Cool -- and two takes on the whole shebang.

Joe Lovano

Streams of Expression

Contributors: Gunther Schuller, Steve Slagle, Tim Hagans, John Hicks, Dennis Irwin, Lewis Nash
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2006-08-01
UK Release Date: 2006-07-31


Joe Lovano is a great and madly diverse saxophonist -- a mainstream player who nevertheless has a serpentine taste for harmonic adventure, and a cat who has most certainly found his own sound. Capable of being as big and brawny as any "Texas Tenor", Lovano more often opts for a bristling but fuzzy tone -- something gentle and indirect and quicksilver.

Lovano has used his talent and unique jazz sensibility under the major label umbrella of Blue Note Records for some time now, where he has recorded a series of thematic records that seem designed to showcase him in perversely different ways: Viva Caruso, playing mostly Italian songs associated with the opera singer with a "street band" and an "opera ensemble"; 52nd Street Themes, playing '40s bop with his nonet; two Trio Fascination discs featuring various piano/guitarless groups, quartets with featured pianists (two with Hank Jones, one with Michel Petrucciani); a Sinatra tribute; a guitar record; a duo face-off with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba; and even Rush Hour, a wildly diverse collaboration with "third stream" arranger and composer Gunther Schuller that pitted Lovano against a bevy of parallel voices -- strings, woodwinds, you name it.

In a word... Phew!

Streams of Expression renews Mr. Lovano's work with Gunther Schuller, but it does so much else as well.

On the One Hand... this is exhausting. Granted, Joe Lovano is a restless and huge talent who can take in a diversity of styles and settings. But his Blue Note catalog seems like a mad travel itinerary forcing listeners to hop from one great place to another without ever setting down roots. This tendency is exacerbated by Lovano's impressive multi-instrumentalism -- he plays tenor, alto, soprano, C-melody sax, various clarinets, even percussion. On this latest record, he is scattered within the scope of a single disc -- playing his own arrangements for an eleven-piece band; playing Schuller's reinterpretation of tunes from Miles Davis's seminal Birth of the Cool album; then playing trio tracks that feature not only his conventional saxophones but also a new double-bodied soprano horn called the "aulochrome". I'm pooped just thinking about listening to it.

Joe Lovano -- Birth of the Cool Suite

On the Other Hand... this recording is the kind of summarizing masterpiece that Lovano's career has been leading up to all along. Drinking generously from his small group work while also setting his tenor amidst brilliantly colorful arrangements of both originals and standards, Streams of Expression has two approaches that complement each other -- with the musical vocabulary sweeping from the straight bluesy swing of "Cool" to the gnarlier ensemble growls of "The Fire Prophets".

OK, Fine, But Then... why do I find it so hard to listen to this record? It seems designed to break my concentration and even vex me. The "Streams of Expression Suite" is referred to in the liner notes as having either five or seven parts, with the parts being interrupted (or even played out of order?). The original material is dedicated to a litany of Lovano's inspirations, but it bookends the Birth of the Cool material, which is a more direct exercise in recreation and nostalgia. Fine as each piece is, the jumble is a cacophonous overload of quality. The "masterpiece" jazz albums -- if that's the word you're going to through around -- tend to have a single brilliant conception: Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Great Music, Friend, Is Not Supposed... to be easy. And this album is layered and rich like the great ones always are. The Lovano suite shifts over several decades of styles in progressive jazz, but it's more an integration than a grab-bag of pastiche. Opening with a free-ballad statement from the trio, it only gradually incorporates the voices of the other horns in stately contrary motion. By its midpoint, however, the first track has the whole ensemble playing in a dense, partly improvised section -- leading to a cascade of whispers from the leader over straight swing. This mesmerizing opening leads naturally to the section "Cool" that could only be followed by Schuller's rich re-imagining of three tracks from the Davis masterpiece. Following it all requires some concentration -- which is as it should be with great music.

So, You Really Love The Birth of the Cool Material? Because I find it vaguely unnecessary and padded out. Schuller's arrangements are not mere Gil Evans copies, sure, but there is a nostalgic cast to the project still -- with Schuller's original links between the pieces not changing your overall impression of sameness. Lovano does a superb job of playing his way through the harmonic richness of "Moon Dreams", and it's always great to hear "Boplicity" again -- but these well-known tunes stand in the way of the freshness of the other material.

I Do Love It, Man -- Sorry. What Gunther has done with the Cool material is what we need more of in jazz: innovation that includes the tradition. These arrangements, while plainly informed by Gil Evans's originals, are more harmonically complex and layered, and the interlude material helps to concentrate your ear on the way in which Cool was a single conception that led to some of the less "pretty" but equally audacious advanced of the 1960s and '70s. Plus, when Lovano returns with more of his "Streams of Expression" material, we can hear these connections alive and well. "Second Nature" overtly references Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman, but the arrangement has a block voicing that reminds us of West Coast cool too. "Buckeyes" stabs in tight unison that includes voicing for flute, muted trumpet, and baritone saxophone then moves into a hypnotic counterpoint -- clean and concise even as it seems as modern as tomorrow.

Fine, But Are You Giving 'Thumbs-Up' To... the "aulochrome"? "Big Ben" is a handsome melody for a trio performance, but this strange double soprano sax sounds less like an innovation in woodwind design than like a weird electronic effect. The aulochrome has two horn bodies and a fused, double-mouthpiece, with fingerings that allow the horn to be played in a shadowy out-of-tune unison or in a very limited kind of counterpoint. It's kinda cool, I guess, but a gimmick nevertheless. I'd bet you my (uh -- our) house that the aulochrome is a quickly forgotten gimmick before the next Paul Motian Trio album comes out. That, my friend, is the band where Joe Lovano really shows his top-this stuff.

Then We'll Have to Agree to Disagree... because that crazy double-horn may never replace the alto, but what's not to love? "Big Ben" has a tipsy, fun quality that is the perfect way to end this otherwise momentous disc -- Lovano seems to stumble home under the street lights while Dennis Irwin's bass and Lewis Nash's drums pave a road of elastic swing beneath him. Maybe you're right that this playing is a far cry from the single-conception purity of Lovano's work with Paul Motian, but the scope of Streams of Expression -- its wider reach and its willingness to cast modern jazz in a more arranged format -- makes it a greater risk too. And -- even with the aulochrome track -- the risk is well worth it.

If I'm really going to make up my mind, perhaps I should listen to this disc again. Which isn't such a bad fate... or so I seem to think.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.