A Joyous Encounter indeed. When saxophonist Joe Lovanoan artist who has constantly explored new musical collaborations over the course of nearly 25 recordings as a leader and never looked backrecorded last year's I'm All For You, he knew he had something special. Of course, one look at the lineuppianist Hank Jones, who, at 86, is the definition of grace and elegance; bassist George Mraz, impeccably-toned and adventurous while firmly rooted in the tradition; and drummer Paul Motian, whose sense of implicit and explicit swing is wholly uniqueand it's difficult to imagine that all kinds of magic wouldn't happen.
And, to be sure, I'm All For You lived up to expectations. Despite an almost self-limiting definition, the ballad album managed to prove that accessible music doesn't have to lack commitment or unpredictability. Tour dates followedsome with the full lineup, but even more with a different quartet that still featured Jonesand what became increasingly clear to Lovano was that this was a musical relationship that warranted further exploration.
And so, with Joyous Encounter, everyone's back, but gone are any stylistic preconceptions. The chemistry is even further developed, and the combination of tender ballads and brighter up-tempo pieces makes for a more balanced and more satisfying set than I'm All For You.
If there's any premise this time, it's a celebration of the Jones family legacy, something Lovano has experienced first-hand, having played with the Mel Lewis Big Bandoriginally co-founded by trumpeter Thad Jonesand subsequently working with drum legend Elvin Jones, both as a member of Jones' Jazz Machine in the '80s and later collaborating with him on Lovano's own Trio Fascination, Edition 1.
Thad Jones is represented by three of his compositions, the best known being "A Child is Born, a poignant ballad that features Lovano's personally evolved blend of Dexter Gordon's robust tone with the lyrical elegance of Sonny Rollins. Tribute is paid to Elvin Jones by the inclusion of John Coltrane's classic "Crescent, although Motian's approach to the kit is characteristically subtler, though incontrovertibly swinging. Further homage is paid with the inclusion of Oliver Nelson's "Six and Four, which Jones covered on a sextet session for The Big Beat. Motian's own loose, slap-happy approach to this upbeat and funky composition manages to be reverential without being overly referential.
And, of course, Hank Jones shines throughout the session, whether on the balladic "Autumn New York, which opens the album and provides a direct link back to I'm All For You, or on Lovano's more energetic "Bird's Eye View, loosely based on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation.
It's amazing that this quartet can approach a mainstream set with the kind of adventurous thinking, free exchange of ideas, and harmonic inspiration that opens the material up in unexpected ways while remaining true to its form. This is what makes Joyous Encounter not just a worthy followup, but a vivid affirmation of, and improvement on, the inherent magic of I'm All For You.
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Personnel: Joe Lovano (tenor and curved soprano saxophone), Hank Jones (piano), George Mraz (bass), Paul Motian (drums and cymbals)