Joe Lovano: Symphonica

Joe Lovano
Blue Note

Saxophonist Joe Lovano is an unlikely jazz star. He was not discovered as a “young lion”, and he does not cut a dashing figure in an Italian suit. He’s not a daring avant-gardist, nor is he a conventional neo-conservative. He has never played fusion or funk, he doesn’t sing on the side, and he doesn’t cameo with any rock bands on a lark.

Even so, Lovano — born in Cleveland in 1952 and playing entirely uncompromising modern jazz — has become a legitimate jazz headliner in concert halls and clubs around the world. Sometimes, my cynical friends, talent outs.

Lovano’s prominence dates from the early 1980s, when he started playing with Paul Motian’s trio with Bill Frisell, and in John Scofield’s quartet, recording for Blue Note. He proved himself a deeply capable “inside-out” man — a jazz musician who can play both pleasantly within conventional tonal harmony and still venture “out” to make more daring or atonal choices when the heart demands. This flexibility extended to his horn of choice (he is mainly a tenor saxophonist, but he shows equal aplomb on alto, soprano, and even clarinet) and to the many bands in which he is at ease.

Once he started recording for Blue Note as a leader, Lovano proved impossible to pigeonhole. He has recorded everything from obtuse experimental music to Italian arias. Now, his 20th Blue Note disc is a true orchestral project recorded mostly in concert with the WDR Radio Big Band and Orchestra from Cologne, Germany. Six of the seven tunes here were recorded live at the Kohner Philharmonie. The arrangements are by WDR musical director Michael Abene.

Lovano has recorded with orchestration before, doing Sinatra tunes, songs associated with Enrique Caruso, and even a date with the “third stream” legend Gunther Schuller. Here, however, the compositions are almost all Lovano’s own, drawn from various periods in his career — almost like a Lovano’s Greatest Hits, Live and in Symphonic Concert!. The danger here should be obvious. Nothing fails in jazz quite like too much “legitimate” orchestration.

But Symphonica is no failure.

Abene and Lovano have crafted a rare symphonic approach to jazz that incorporates strings without seeming schmaltzy or pseudo-classical. The only standard on the program is “Duke Ellington’s Sounds of Love” by Charlie Mingus. It’s a canny choice, as both Mingus and Ellington are jazz musicians who represented ambition and eclecticism in jazz composition — without getting caught in the net of wanting to escape jazz for more “legitimate” pastures. The introduction is entirely symphonic, but when Lovano enters on the melody (with its gorgeous echo of “Lush Life”, among other tunes) the mood is romantic and mysterious.

On tenor, Lovano’s tone can be muscular, but the years seem to add more and more power to the pretty side of his tone. On the Mingus tune, Lovano sounds feathery and ripe at once — changing directions like a sparrow in the high register, and birthing beautiful eggs of sounds down low. The ballad “Emperor Jones” (for drummer Elvin Jones) is a great example of how well Lovano plays in the tradition, flowing his easy tone over chords as if Coleman Hawkins had been sipping rum with Stan Getz on a lazy afternoon.

On soprano saxophone, Lovano sounds more tart and daring. “Eternal Joy” was written for a saxophone trio originally, but Abene gives it a daring arrangement that is all elbows and knees, with Lovano’s straight horn dancing daringly with the rhythm. The interaction between saxophone and piano on the improvisation is not quite atonal, but it has the rough-and-tumble of real jazz pushing the edges of convention: the harmonic bubble, the drums push from below, and then the brass and strings enter like Stravinsky with an attitude. It is daring, wonderful, bold.

There is a really keen use of the orchestra on “The Dawn of Time”, which is drawn from Lovano’s collaboration with John Scofield, Dave Holland, and Al Foster, Oh!. This tune has a punching rhythm feel that Abene is not shy about putting in the hands of his brass and percussion, giving the arrangement a taste of Latin fusion. Lovano and guitarist Paul Shigihara share the front line here, and the solos are under-girded by electric piano over polyrhythmic hand percussion. Lovano lets his tone splinter more on his solo as he cries out over the groove. The closing stop-time section of the solo pits Lovano against the orchestration itself, and it is thrilling.

There are performances here that hark back to older styles of symphonic jazz, such as Lovano’s meditation on “Body and Soul”, titled “I’m All for You”. It’s a lovely performance. But Symphonica shines brightest when it reaches away from jazz traditions toward a more distinctive kind of writing for orchestra. On “Alexander the Great”, the writing for the ensemble section sounds less like “jazz” than like some of the late-career compositions by Frank Zappa: angular, spiky, and prankish. The tune is mainly a boppish take on the “Bye Bye Blackbird” changes, and so the improvisations on tenor and alto saxophone are straight-up jazz, but it’s hard not to yearn for the return of the whole orchestra.

At its best, this recording suggests much more than a gilded Joe Lovano career retrospective. Its pleasures are considerable, and it moves in the direction of innovation, putting a jazz giant and a full symphonic band in frequent dialogue. I wish only that the moments of Zappa-esque daring were more sustained and through-written, with the duel between Lovano’s voice and the full orchestra being a full-on affair. That said, even when Lovano and the WDR Orchestra merely sit back and luxuriate in jazz’s past, the music is well worth your time.

Another thought: Joe Lovano may have 20 Blue Note albums under his belt, but he’s only 55 years old. Let’s hope this is just a taste of things to come.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.