Joe Lovano keeps on discovering. And surprising.
Although he acquired a “tenor titan” reputation over the years and started his career gigging in top-tier organ groups that required a huge sound (with Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith), Lovano has also developed into one of our most introspective saxophonists, armed with a tone that can also be a whisper or a confession. The most introspective jazz record label, ECM, has featured Lovano in the groups of other musicians, but Trio Tapestry is his debut for the label. Playing with ECM stalwart pianist Marilyn Crispell and fellow Cleveland native Carmen Castaldi on drums, Lovano has put together a program of minimal tone poems that explore musical space and its relationship to silence.
Lovano’s long tenure in the trio of drummer Paul Motian is one touchstone for this project. In that band, he worked on gorgeous compositions that also used space carefully. The atmospheric guitar Bill Frisell was his foil in that band, one also designed without a bassist. And it is through playing with Motian that Lovano collaborated with Crispell. Together, the pianist and the horn player come together on Trio Tapestry to explore a set of Lovano originals that are so ingenious that they allow the performances to seem almost entirely spontaneous. Castaldi—whose history of work in various super-pro Vegas bands might lead you to underestimate him—is with them every step of the way, creating a subtle atmosphere.
“Sparkle Lights”, for example, works almost as a traditional jazz trio performance, with Castaldi keeping quiet ballad time. Lovano outlines a floating melody as Crispell plays airy, arpeggiated harmonies as accompaniment. The line between improvisation and composition is vague, purposefully. As the piano takes over from Lovano, he doesn’t disappear but just moves into the background as Crispell’s lines become subtly more prominent. It is a balanced piece of wonder, beautiful by any measure. “Rare Beauty” has a more traditional theme stated in unison by piano and tenor saxophone, a rhapsodic line that rises and falls and includes a short harmonic release, with the whole trio playing more emphatically than on most other tracks. The improvisations, however, are free rather than tracking a harmonic form, resulting in a different kind of structure: with the melody acting as a kind of question and the solos becoming responses or answers rather than variations hemmed in by the theme. The track climaxes, however, in a collective improvisation, with piano and saxophone winding around each other like caramel and chocolate. They don’t return to the opening theme, and it is more satisfying—the question didn’t need repeating because the answer really arrived.
Listening to Crispell might bring your ears back to her two dazzling ECM recordings of 1996 and 2000, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway and Amaryllis, each with Gary Peacock’s bass and Motian’s drums. Her playing is grounded in both classical training and the free improvisation scene, yet she seems to have matured into a player of exquisite lyricism—her inclination is always melodic and lovely but never a slave to jazz standards or to Tin Pan Alley harmonic patterns. The result is creative music that makes peace with listeners who still want to hear something engaging and beautiful. The pairing with Lovano, then, always makes sense: he has always played with daring but also a sense that his audience must be engaged. Listen to “Razzle Dazzle”, with its doorbell-ish opening theme from Crispell, which turns into a slow cascade of pianism before Lovano enters with a line that also features odd intervals, but that adds a hint of blues as well. It could almost be a hymn with its simplicity and clarity, particularly as the two voices join into resolution at the end. It’s eccentric music, perhaps, but oddly lovely. And defies so many “jazz” cliches while still seeming like nothing else.
Some of the tracks are duets, emphasizing the importance of the sparseness of sound through the recording. “Mystic” is restricted to drums and soprano saxophone, but not in the Coltrane/Elvin Jones vein. Castaldi rumbles on his toms and sings by moving sticks across his cymbals as Lovano plays a theme that hints at microtonal ideas. The horn reverberates in the studio to create an even greater sense of resonance, and eventually, Castaldi develops a deeper sense of space and groove by hinting at tempo across the whole kit. That is followed by “Piano Drum Episode” and “Gong Episode”, with Crispell replacing Lovano in duet with the drums at first. She plays a spare written melody with the fewest possible notes: a single-note line accompanied by quiet dyads that are rung every other measure at most. The openness of the sound allows the drums to slither in and out of your hearing and keeps the ears alert to any possibility. “Gong” hands to reins to Castaldi for two minutes of melodic percussion.
There is only one track on Trio Tapestry that moves significantly beyond a lyrical and meditative mood. “The Smiling Dog” is a brief but pulsating way to close the album, with Crispell and Lovano playing bold call-and-response as the drums get a solid groove going. The track serves to remind us that all the restraint shown for the rest of the album is a choice, and hardly the only one, for a band with this level of potency.
The danger in recording for ECM—after its long and esteemed history of making the gentlest and slowest and most gorgeous music of this type—is to have your own personality disappear into the “ECM sound”, with its shuddering reverberation and chilly, fjords-in-winter echoes. This band both rises to the occasion of such lyricism and goes beyond it. Lovano’s sound is utterly his own: woody and personal while still gentle and sumptuous. Crispell could never be mistaken for other ECM pianists of fame, whether Keith Jarrett or Bobo Stenson. She is utterly her own through note choice, phrasing, voicing, and rhythmic temperament—creating a voice that feels both still and teetering on the edge of potential energy.
And perhaps that is the difference with this band on ECM. There is never any stillness in this set of performances. They, like composer and saxophonist Joe Lovano, are in a constant state of becoming and evolving. It is music in motion, even if that motion is mostly slow.