Joe Lovano: On This Day . . . At the Vanguard

Joe Lovano
On This Day . . . At the Vanguard
Blue Note

People who like this CD will also, doubtless, like a recording by Joe L. mentioned in the accompanying notes. The trumpeter was in fact Fats Navarro, and that hour of 1948 performances broadcast from the Roost (as I write, the tenor player, Allan Eager, has just died) has appeared on disc under Navarro’s name and also under that of the actual leader, Tadd Dameron (1917-1965). Dameron spoke of two different roads or paths, one a plain alley and the other an avenue lined with flowers, blossom, et cetera. It makes most sense to take him as making a contrast not between preceding jazz and the harmonic approach new in the 1940s, but between some easier alternative and the beautiful path on which Joe Lovano is here quite plainly following him.

Joe Lovano‘s not trying to re-create, something Dameron failed at in the unhappy last few years of his too short life, with a second recording of his 1956 “Fontainbleau”. The Magic Touch of Tadd Dameron (1961) is an album maybe even Dameron treated as superior mood music and not the extension of what began with “Dameron Stomp”, recorded by Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City big band in 1940. Without Dameron, even Dizzy Gillespie’s later big band would a poorer legacy. His work for a wide range of other leaders, and its effect on others, mark him out as much more than a merely historical figure. Horrible circumstances prevented a better realisation of his vision by ensembles under his own name, but he bequeathed opportunities taken up in the 1980s by Don Sickler and friends in the band Dameronia, further taken up here.

Dameron told his musicians to make it beautiful, whatever: to play lines, which were themselves “pretty”. He didn’t write mere themes but orchestrations, with every part a worked-out melodic line. Improvising on a Monk theme demands reference to its melody as well as harmonic sequence, improvising on Dameron is working within an overall orchestral texture, which gives direction and sustenance to ideas. Dameron’s piano playing (two tapes of him playing solo tragically vanished years ago!) expresses his compositional conception. As soloist and accompanist, he plays not lines so much as successions of chorded textures, and harmonies opening up vistas round what any soloist is playing.

Dameron “voiced out” his music (in Lovano’s phrase) though more so than does Steve Slagle does in an arrangement here of Coltrane’s “After the Rain” (which is what Lovano was talking about. The chart is based on the whole climate of a Coltrane quartet performance, as far as opening out the harmonic implications invested in that daunting tenor saxophone tone Coltrane spent years refining. Coltrane turns out to be a second tutelary figure on this CD. The opener, “At the Vanguard” re-reads “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (a jazz composition for which — with many other things — its author Edgar Sampson never got due credit) into Dameron. Lovano’s orchestration and arrangement works by creating a shifting texture combining all manner of variations on the original theme. As in Dameron, he uses shifts between textures to create, by harmonic contrasts, a dancing rhythm, somewhat Caribbean and intrinsic to the music.

On Dameron’s own medium tempo “Focus”, in the Cleveland veteran Willie “Face” Smith’s arrangement, Lovano does remind me of Allen Eager. His tenor playing’s at times light enough to be confused with Slagle’s lower-register alto. “Focus” is unusual for so easy-paced a composition, in having so potently insistent a rhythmic pattern, even where it’s only implicit in solos. This may be a nonet, but Lewis Nash sounds like one of the greatest big band drummers.

After Steve Slagle has also demonstrated his great gifts as a reed section leader on alto in “After the Rain”, Dameron’s “Good Bait” makes swinging compulsory. It exercises Ralph LaLama (tenor), Larry Farrell (trombone), and Scott Robinson at prodigious length in a baritone solo that George Garzone’s tenor works hard to follow, before John Hicks’s piano solo eases the accumulated tension for a reprise of “Face” Smith’s ensemble theme statement. Lovano takes things out in a solo climaxed with ensemble accompaniment before everybody comes together and the rollicking theme rides out.

It seems fiendishly difficult to begin any solo ballad performance without the theme, and no easier to be the pianist as Joe Lovano develops a statement whose climax is the end of a straight chorus of “Laura”. The ensemble comes in, and Slagle on alto sounds a bit like Stan Getz with a Woody Herman band ballad accompaniment. Barry Ries is lyrical on trumpet, followed what sounds like the ensemble transcription of a bebop ballad solo — or the Herman band’s classic “Early Autumn”. The boss closes, everything beautifully afloat.

“On This Day, Just Like Any Other” is Lovano’s tribute to the great drummer Billy Higgins and the most ambitious item on the programme. The nine-beat rhythm of its theme, composed around the time of Higgins’ untimely death, is restated in its title.

Lewis Nash’s drums open, emulating Higgins’ support for Ornette Coleman. Lovano and Garzone enter together to improvise freely over the more rapidly dancing drums, moving in the direction of a statement of the theme. The overall work is an alternation between solos, Slagle, Ries, Garzone, Lovano, and group improvisations, the latter building to give the soloist who follows on a new start, like the opening of a new symphonic movement. Then into another ensemble development and then Garzone, ensemble again and finally the boss. The alternation of solo and group improvisation, as Lovano says, may be modelled on John Coltrane’s Ascension, but this is a far shorter (15:37 rather than 38!!! minutes) very different much more approachable proposition.

In a book which also includes his brilliant short essay on Dameron (Jazz on Record, McCarthy et al., Hanover Books/Oak Books, 1968), Max Harrison calls Ascension less like music than ritual. He speaks of “rages, cries, . . . fury, emotional exhaustion” of Ascension and too many players blowing at the same time for anything to be made of the ensemble passages. Ascension was maybe a folly of genius and continents away from Dameron, but while the 1956 Coltrane-Dameron quartet album was interesting rather than realised it was entitled Mating Call. There seems to is some point in reading Coltrane (Ornette Coleman too) into Dameronian.

Lovano would be far from the first brilliant player seeking freedom for jazz from the repeated song chorus pattern, a freedom scarcely to be thought of without everything being written out. Like Debussy’s “Images”? Or Dameron’s 1956 “Fontainbleau”! As admirers of the comparably incomparable Herbie Nichols oeuvre say, nobody at the time had worked out how to solo on stuff like that! Here certainly seeking an expression beyond what Dameron attained, Lovano’s testing the feasibility of the openness of an at least partly “free jazz” performance, sustained together by Dameronian influence — and by a band of musicians who’ve worked together in big band and other settings, beside the nonet, for years.

The live performances, we’re told, were different every night, and presumably fascinating to more than the players. Odd bits, which didn’t come off, were no problem, there for repeated listening alongside some supreme playing. There are odd failures on the CD, but slight and few, and anyway one of the diseases of modern music appreciation is too much negative stress on things like bum notes. The little glitches really wouldn’t matter even without the supreme balm of what was I suppose an encore on the night: Lovano, the beautifully lyrical Hicks, Nash and the (exemplary throughout) bassist Dennis Irwin in a quartet reading of “My Little Brown Book”. Lovano CDs have of late become — mostly in the music — very intelligent essays on jazz. Even without the flier, I did remember this tune is on the Coltrane-Duke Ellington quartet album. The Lovano quartet “My Little Brown Book” is definitely an attempt to do some things Dameron will have been hearing for some 38 years now from bands of angels, but Joe Lovano does go in for things worth looking forward to.