The spirit of John Coltrane looms heavy over the proceedings of Saxophone Summit: Gathering of Spirits , where saxophonists Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano commit to disc the occasional grouping that they have participated in since '96. The result is something a little surprising in this era of "super groups": a trio whose collective whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts, representing an uncompromising ensemble that gets more exciting and adventurous as the one hour set progresses.
Making it easy to differentiate the players by placing them in specific aural positionsLovano on the left, Liebman in the centre and Brecker on the rightwhat becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the programme is exactly how influential Coltrane has been on all three players. And yet, that being said, each player has taken that influence and developed something distinctly personal and unique. There is absolutely no mistaking each player, regardless of where they are positioned in the mix.
Probably the most overtly informed is Liebman, who is arguably the foremost proponent of the soprano saxophone performing today, and plays the straight horn on three of the six tracks. Brecker's roots are also in evidence, although he has developed so many identifiable signatures that, like Liebman, comparisons ultimately become meaningless; still, both players clearly lean towards the expressionistic "sheets of sound" approach that Coltrane first introduced. Less direct is Lovano, whose style is as much Dexter Gordon's richness and Sonny Rollins' lyrical elegance and dignity as it is Coltrane's boldness.
Starting the set with Lovano's reworking of "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Alexander the Great" gives the players, ably supported by pianist and long-time Liebman associate Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, a chance to warm up before heading into more Coltrane-esque modal territory on Markowitz's 7/4 piece, "The 12th Man." Coltrane's "India" is reharmonized, using the cycle of fourths to draw richer harmonies from the simple theme than Coltrane likely envisioned. "Peace on Earth" is a rubato tone poem that is a moving tribute to Coltrane's more spiritual side.
But the most risks are taken on the last half of the set. The seventeen-minute "Tricycle" was written by Liebman to give the rhythm section a chance to develop unencumbered a capella solos, and give the three saxophonists different musical contexts over which to soloa rubato section for Liebman, a free-time section for Lovano's alto clarinet, and a burning in-time duet for Brecker with Hart. Opening with all three horns in full-out multiphonics mode, Brecker's title track finishes the album with a series of bare structures that serve as rallying points for free excursions from everyone involved.
Saxophone Summit proves that an idea with some commercial appeal doesn't have to sacrifice integrity or free-spiritedness. Brecker, Liebman and Lovano have crafted an album that easily stands amongst the best recordings of their collective careers, and makes one hope this isn't just a one-time affair.
Alexander the Great; The 12th Man; India; Peace on Earth; Tricycle; A Gathering of Spirits
Michael Brecker (tenor saxophone, kaval), Dave Liebman (tenor and soprano saxophones, Indian flute), Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato)