Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
It’s a Marvel Comics kind of question: What if Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas teamed up? I mean, Lovano and Douglas are this jazz era’s equivalent of the Incredible Hulk and Thor, God of Thunder: They can (and will) do whatever the hell they want, and they’ll do it absolutely splendidly – witness the sterling music Lovano’s created with the atypical configuration that is Us Five; or Douglas’ almost-all-horn band Brass Ecstasy, one of the biggest highlights of last year’s rain-soaked Solid Sound Festival. That’s just two examples from a long, long list of choices! Sure, Lovano and Douglas shared space on the SFJAZZ Collective front line a few years ago, but they were working on someone else’s ideas. But what if they came up with their own concept… like a set of original compositions inspired by jazz icon Wayne Shorter, for instance?
Yes, the argument can be made that this is just an outgrowth of SFJAZZ’s mandate, which not only calls for tribute to the music of a new legend every year, but also commissions the Collective’s rolling cast to create new music inspired by that legend. But as much as I am the biggest SFJAZZ fan in Greater Nippertown, I always get the sense that most of each year’s work involves finding something significant for everyone in the band to do. (“Collective,” right?) Contrariwise, the quintet Lovano & Douglas brought out to a packed-tight Zankel Music Center had a very specific hierarchy, with the jovial reed wizard and the intense trumpeter firmly in the lead and their supporting players knowing their occasionally-expansive supporting roles. That consistency wasn’t just traditional; it was also necessary, because the music they were about to pimp-slap us with was intricate enough without the musicians having to ask themselves, “Who am I now? Who am I on the next tune?”
It was fitting that the 4th of July was the next day, because there was plenty of freedom to go around on the opener “Sound Prints.” Wearing blue boat shoes and a beige shirt/pants outfit from the “Casual Dictator” collection, the semi-sunburned Lovano started in the clear on soprano sax, soon to be joined in frenetic call-and-answer by Douglas, who was engaging in a bit of role reversal: Normally, it’s Lovano who wears a hat onstage. Joey Baron crashed and banged his drum kit while bassist Linda Oh and pianist Lawrence Fields waited for their turn to jump into the big pool of rubato. Although Oh was literally blotted out by Lovano from my viewing point, her vibrant bass fought its way through the layers of sound Lovano & Douglas were spreading over the audience. Fields comped along initially, but when Douglas pointed at the ceiling and started firing away, Fields wisely laid out and watched.
Lovano’s already put his indelible mark on the catalogs of artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Dewey Redman, and Us Five’s last release “Bird Songs” put some serious topspin on the work of Charlie Parker. But while Shorter’s ’60s Blue Note period definitely drove pieces like Douglas’ “Sprints” and Lovano’s “Full Moon,” the fiery lines Lovano played – on both soprano and tenor saxes – were all his own. While wireless technology can free up a soloist, it’s good Lovano didn’t have that here; he went wireless for the Redman tribute at Williamstown Jazz Festival years ago, and the passion in one line had him running across the stage like a charging rhino. Lovano had to run in place at Zankel, but we never got short-changed on passion – or on artistry, come to that. His rip-snorting set-closer “Newark Flash” had both aspects, and then some.
It’s always interested me that Douglas has his mic set taller than he is, and I think I know why he does it: If he pointed his horn at the ground, he’d be in danger of tearing up the hall’s foundation. I used to think Terence Blanchard was the most powerful horn player I’d ever seen, but now it’s a dead heat between Blanchard and Douglas, who – like Blanchard – can actually shape those big sounds, not just use them to knock us senseless. (In that light, Douglas gets five bonus points for the “Footprints” sub-reference during “I Know.”) To my mind, Douglas is also a match with Blanchard on the composition front, because both players always come up with music that’s fresh as a daisy, not to mention challenging without being “clever.” Douglas is definitely on his writing game with this project, as his compositions “Power Ranger” and the encore “Hypatia” hold that same brilliant, slightly-left-of-center vibe Shorter brought to Davis’ “Second Great Quintet.” In particular, “Hypatia” was giving me lovely, warm flashbacks to “Nefertiti,” a pre-fusion Miles album that’s on a par with the iconic “Kind of Blue.”
Oh is the second straight monster female bass player Lovano’s worked with – the first being Us Five’s Esperanza Spalding. I don’t know if Oh can sing, but as a player, she’s as stone-cold a killer as Spalding. Building nicely on her 2011 Zankel appearance, Oh held the foundation straight and level (allowing Baron, who is ALWAYS “on the fill,” room to search and destroy with impunity), and her solos on “Ranger” and “Full Sun” were up there with anything her leaders had to offer. Fields, on the other hand, never really got off the ground. You couldn’t argue with his technical skills, and his in-the-clear intro to Douglas’ “Libra” was properly pastoral, but every other time he soloed, the temperature in the room went down 10 degrees, and not in a good way. Shorter played with Herbie Hancock and Danilo Perez, so the piano chair in this concept needs a lot more guts than what we got here.
After the show, I was disappointed to learn (from Douglas, who was still out of breath) that none of this music has been recorded. The thing is, though, this band will be touring Europe for most of July, including a stop at Rotterdam’s prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival. That means only one thing: This amazing music is only just starting to develop, and this unit is only going to get better. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to start digging my bomb shelter, because whenever Lovano & Douglas DO get this stuff “down on tape” (or whatever the recording process is called these days), the resulting explosion will be absolutely blinding!
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz