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Joe Lovano's Flights of Fancy


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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 reasonable—only $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.

The first set opened with Lovano on tenor, Baron on drums and Cameron Brown on bass playing "Flights of Fancy" (title track of the recent CD). It's one of the more immediately recognizable melodies and rhythmically interesting tunes on the recording with a sort of funk backbeat. Baron and Brown alternated between serving as a rhythm section and as functioning as equal voices involved in a collective improvisation process. The trio was joined by Billy Drewes on soprano and Mark Dresser on bass for the Lovano composition "Off and Running." This is a distinctly (Atlantic-era) Ornette-like composition which served as an effective vehicle for Drewes bittersweet and sometimes acrid soprano sound, somewhat reminiscent of Steve Lacy and Baron's Ed Blackwell like drum rolls. Drewes has impressive credentials having playing with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker, and Tom Harrel. Yet he is not very well known even to most jazz aficionados. Drewes alternated between clarinet and soprano. He also doubled as a percussionist, sitting on the stage floor playing a range of nifty percussive devices. Douglas and Werner joined them on the third number and the group would continue to play in various configurations throughout the first set. Highlights of the set included a pretty ballad, Bougainvillea, penned by Judi Silvano (Joe's wife). The final number, a reprise of "Flights of Fancy" with the entire septet, was just awesome. Drewes, Douglas and Lovano proved to be a formidable front line and this loose-jointed high energy rendition was incredibly exciting. In general, the first set was enjoyable and had many great moments. However, it did have a few dull patches and incoherent stretches where the musicians seemed to be a little out of synch.

The second set was just superb from the opening moments onwards. The group seemed to be much more cohesive and the communication was at a higher level. The set opened up with Lovano, Baron, and Werner playing Wayne Shorter's Infant Eyes. This is a beautiful ballad and for the most part they performed a relatively straight-ahead version that was just stunning. The group played as a septet for most of the second set with Drewes often playing percussion. Other highlights include a rather lengthy performance of Blackwell's Message—a tribute to the great drummer (Ed Blackwell) that first appeared on Tenor Legacy and the closing tune Cymbalism (from the first Trio Fascination recording) with Lovano on alto clarinet. I've had the pleasure of seeing Lovano perform on several occasions and his playing is always at a very high level. He will rarely dazzle you with stunning displays of virtuosity, although he's certainly capable. He is a first-rate improviser with a rich appreciation of different jazz idioms and an understanding of how to rework musical ideas in a way that sound spontaneous and fresh. The dual bass action of Dresser and Brown provided an energetic rhythmic foundation throughout the second and additionally engaged in some compelling musical dialogue. The bass was noticeably absent in the first set. For my money, Joey Baron was the star of this performance. He's an exceptionally fine, incredibly versatile and musical drummer. He can swing fiercely and play with impeccable taste. He also has a little bit of Han Bennink's theatrical flair and an absurd sense of humor. Baron will make a dramatic statement, calling attention to himself, at a seemingly inopportune time. For example, he will suddenly play a wildly loud drum roll behind a soloist. This will typically last for only for a few seconds, whereas Bennink will do his best to subvert the soloist. Baron is also a master of unusual accents, employs a wide range of percussive implements, and will play every inch of his drum kit. He was in brilliant form on this occasion. All in all, this was an evening of inspiring music played by a superb ensemble of creative improvising musicians.

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