This has been a banner year for Joe Lovano. He was appointed to the newly created Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance at Berklee College of Music, a position he assumed this past September. Recently the Downbeat's Critics and Readers Poll named Joe Lovano as its artist of the year. In the past year, he also released 2 critically-acclaimed recordings, 52nd Street Themes
an homage to Tadd Dameron and classic music of the bebop era, and Flights of Fancy
, a recording featuring four distinct trios.
I was fortunate to see Lovano with the rather impressive Flights of Fancy ensemble at Merkin Hall last night. The group included Dave Douglas on trumpet, Billy Drewes on soprano sax and clarinet, Kenny Werner on piano, bassists Mark Dresser and Cameron Brown and the great Joey Baron on drums. Baron was sporting a rather lengthy graying beard and a nearly full head of hair (well not too much on top). Lovano played tenor sax and an unusual assortment of horns including a curved soprano (a tiny instrument that has a toy-like appearance), alto clarinet (with a small bell) and a straight alto sax (a beautiful looking instrument that has become something of a Lovano trademark). The straight alto sounds about halfway between an alto and tenor sax to my ears. The ensemble performed in various configurations of trios, quartets, etc and sometimes as a septet. The group played music (mostly) from Lovano's most recent release, Flights of Fancy
. This recording is the second edition of a series Lovano calls Trio Fascination. On that recording, these musicians (plus Toots Thielmans and Idris Muhammad who were not present) played in various trio configurations. The first volume, released in 1998, featured Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. The concept is one in which simple melodic statements arranged for a particular set of musicians, serve as a basis for both individual and collective improvisation. The music is much looser and less arranged than some of his other recent recordings such as 52nd St. Themes
and Celebrating Sinatra
. The Trio Fascination recordings feature some of Lovano's most adventurous and stimulating music and this was in evidence at this concert.
Merkin Hall is part of the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, a complex situated about 2 blocks from Lincoln Center. The Hall puts on a range of cultural events from chamber music to children's shows typically at very reasonable prices. There is also a music school that is part of the complex. Merkin Hall is fairly nondescript concert hall with a clean antiseptic white brick appearance. There is a large orchestra seating area and a comparatively small balcony (that seemed to be mostly empty). The ceiling is covered with acoustic tiles and the sound is just great. In general, this is a very pleasant place to see live music. The concert was part of a "Jazz Breakthrough" (2 concert) series organized by the legendary New York jazz disc jockey and musical scholar Phil Schaap. Jon Faddis will be leading an all-star ensemble for the second concert. The youthful looking Schaap also served as the evenings Masters of Ceremony.
The purpose of the series is to attract concert goers who are unlikely to go to clubs to see jazz. It's an annual event that has been going on for some years. The ticket prices were very reasonableonly $22 which is about half what you would pay if the concert were staged at Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, the performance was not well promoted and the 450 seat theatre was filled to 80% capacity. This is a concert that should have soldout even in a highly competitive jazz marketplace such as New York City.