Friday, November 18, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #6

Joe Lovano
Joyous Encounter

A few years ago, I took an Introduction to Law class taught by Robert Iuliano — who was, at the time, deputy general counsel for Harvard University. On the first night of class, a girl started asking obnoxious questions that grew progressively disruptive. She was obviously strung out, probably on cocaine, and the situation could easily have escalated into an arrest. Instead, Iuliano put down his chalk, looked straight at the girl, and told her he wouldn't tolerate any further disruption.

He didn't raise his voice. He didn't curse. He didn't make a single threat. It was pure demeanor: one minute he was warm and jovial, and in a flash he became a forceful, imposing figure. He did it calmly, politely, and with respect — yet the change in tenor was unmistakable. You could feel the entire class stiffen.

To increase intensity without increasing tempo or volume is a rare skill. It requires more than fluency; it requires character, and character comes only through long experience. It's one of those things that make me skeptical any time I hear about some child prodigy; there's a depth to conversation that you simply can't achieve as a teenager, no matter how many books you've read. And great music is conversation.

Between the four of them, Lovano and company have nearly three centuries of experience as professional musicians. They have character. And that's what defines this CD, what elevates it above every other disc featuring four guys playing weather-beaten standards. These cats couldn't play lightweight if they tried.

Generally speaking, I don't like all-star sessions. Labels have an annoying habit of pulling a bunch of marquee names out of a hat, locking them together in a studio, and rubber-stamping whatever they happen to record. Too often, the chemistry just isn't there. Lovano cut a similar record five years ago with Jim Hall, George Mraz, and Lewis Nash; and although those were four great musicians, they never clicked as a band.

If you'll pardon a kindergarten analogy: It's like a hot fudge sundae. You want real vanilla bean ice cream; and thick, homemade fudge; and cold, fresh-whipped cream. You want the right proportions, and you want a spoon big enough to hold some of each. Sure, you could line up three dishes with separate ingredients and dip your spoon into each for every bite...but that wouldn't be a hot fudge sundae.

These guys have that chemistry, and the result is a masterclass in everything you want to hear from a band. They remain a cohesive whole throughout, never fracturing into "soloist vs. rhythm section." They share a pulse, yet maintain individuality: Lovano sounds like Lovano. Hank Jones sounds like Hank Jones. And their interactions, always fascinating, are the real star of this record. Honestly, you forget about the songs they're playing. You just hear the stories they tell.

Joyous Encounter: Autumn In New York; Bird's Eye View; Don't Ever Leave Me; Alone Together; Six and Four; Pannonica; Consummation; Quiet Lady; Joyous Encounter; A Child Is Born; Crescent.
Personnel: Joe Lovano, tenor and soprano saxophones; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Paul Motian, drums.


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