Joe Lovano Keeps on Discovering  and Surprising on 'Trio Tapestry'

Joe Lovano's debut for the meditative ECM label both conforms to the meditative, gorgeous standard and transcends it through a sense of constant motion and surprise.

Trio Tapestry
Joe Lovano


29 January 2019

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.





The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.