No instrument is more synonymous with jazz than the tenor saxophone, due equally to the expressive capabilities of the horn and the legacy of great players who have been attracted to it. On the evidence of Down Beat
readers' and critics' polls over the past decade, Joe Lovano would appear to be the favorite among contenders for the top spot among present-day tenor titans. Is he one of the giants? Perhaps, though one might be hard-pressed to make the case on the basis of this single session from 2004.
In the liner notes, Ira Gitler invokes Dexter Gordon as an authority on the subject of strong individual tenor voices. The comparison seems less than apt, especially if Gitler is suggesting that Lovano is made of the same cloth. Gordon made each and every note a definitive choice during the course of constructing musical sermons delivered with such strong conviction that the extemporaneous circumstances of their creation is all the more to marvel at. His extended "Body and Soul" (from The Panther) rivals Coleman Hawkins in emotional rhetoric and exceeds him in some of its inspired note choices based on alternate harmoniestones that Dexter treats like daggers, carefully selecting each one, then sharpening and honing each before aiming it right at the listener's heart.
By contrast, Lovano's "Body and Soul" (retitled "I'm All for You") finds the player moving notes around on a chess board, experimenting with directions and possibilities, blurring some notes and abandoning others before making the move that counts, often to undeniable lyrical-poetic effect. He's definitely closer to Lester Young than to any other tenor player associated with this tunefrom Byas to Stitt to Lockjaw Davis to Coltrane. But his phrasing is more tentative and choppy, his sound is less open-throated, more squeezed and clipped than that of Lester or, for that matter, Stan Getz. In fact, if I didn't know who the player was, I would guess Lee Konitz had momentarily exchanged his alto for a tenor (listen to any of Konitz's recordings of the tune).
This album may be the best introduction to Joe Lovano's inimitable sound and approach (as a Sinatra-phile, I found his tribute to Old Blue quite tepid). At this late, post-Bird, post-Trane time in American improvisatory music, sheer competence isn't enough, and genuine innovation can be illusory. Possessing an individual voice is, in itself, no small achievement.
And it doesn't hurt that the comparatively youthful, fifty-ish Lovano is supported by three of the current scene's reigning patriarchs in George Mraz, Paul Motian and Hank Jones (for the math-inclined, a sexagenerian, a septagenerian, and an octogenarian). They lend not only sympathetic musical support, but also an incalculable sense of confirmation to this latest addition to a formidable musical heritage.