LIVE: Joe Lovano & Friends @ Senate Garage, Kingston, 3/7/20

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The latest episode in Teri Roiger & John Menegon’s “Jazzstock” series was billed as “An Evening of Expressive Music with Joe Lovano & Friends.” Mind you, “expressive” can be both defined and interpreted in many ways; also, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody in the jazz world expresses himself like Lovano.

Photo by Rudy Lu

I’ve compared the Hudson Valley native’s playing to driving a Ferrari or a Maserati – two Italian sports cars where the primary watchwords are “passion” and “soul.” You want balance and predictability in the bends as well as a nice, pleasing noise? Go buy a Porsche Boxster – or, in jazz terms, go listen to Eric Alexander. With Lovano, even the softest notes have a snarling texture, and while his solos may be slurred or even flatted, everything is entirely appropriate for whatever emotion each piece demands. Lovano brought some of his own works for his super friends (Menegon on bass, plus pianist Frank Kimbrough and drummer Francesco Mela) to party on, but it was the other composers Lovano name-checked throughout the 90-minute set that showed calling this music “expressive” was a massive understatement.

Take the second piece of the night, a fire-breathing version of Dewey Redman’s “Dewey’s Tune”: Some years back at the long-gone Williamstown Jazz Festival, I watched Lovano, Kimbrough and Menegon team up with uber-drummer Matt Wilson on a Dewey Redman tribute that not only blew the doors off the ’62 Center, but also made Robert Glasper’s headlining set seem completely superfluous. The doors were still attached to Senate Garage when “Dewey’s” was done Saturday night, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by this bodacious unit. Ordinarily, not having Wilson on the date would have meant a drop-off in the rhythm section, but Mela is a charter member of Lovano’s exploratory outfit Us Five, so Redman’s soaring composition was meat & potatoes for Mela. His solo was bombastic enough to put a capper on any show, and we were only two tunes into the evening!

Photo by Rudy Lu

Then there was the medley of tunes by Paul Motian, who Lovano recorded with on multiple occasions. You don’t play (or listen to) the late drummer’s material to turn off your brain. His compositions are basically Jackson Pollack murals morphed into music, with byzantine structures rarely accompanied by a discernable time signature. Kimbrough was wearing a pastel shirt that (when combined with his short mullet) evoked a late-career Bill Evans, but Lovano’s longtime co-conspirator transported us all to rubatoheaven with a feather-soft touch that was contrasted by Mela’s rumbling drums and Lovano’s soaring soprano sax. Menegon’s solo on “Conception Vessel” was fat and juicy, and entirely in line with what we’ve come to expected from the bespectacled bass man.

After Lovano cleansed our palate with his beautiful blues ballad “Our Daily Bread”, he set fire to the rest of the regular set using two Ornette Coleman pieces (“Round Trip” and “Law Years”) for kindling. As with the Motian medley, Lovano split time between his soprano sax and a bulky item that looked like the bastard love child of a sop sax and a bass clarinet. That turned out to be a straight alto sax, which I didn’t think I’d ever seen Lovano play before – though it is hard to keep up with the multitude of reed instruments Joe keeps in his arsenal. Needless to say, Ornette’s music is not easy music, and while there was familiarity throughout the band, the quartet would have been excused if the results were that of your standard pickup quartet; instead, both pieces were as seamless – and as riotous – as if this quartet been working these pieces every night since the turn of the Millenium.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Lovano bookended the evening with two McCoy Tyner tunes, playing both on tenor sax – the ebullient opener “Blues on the Corner” and the wistful encore “You Taught My Heart to Sing.” In each case, Lovano spoke from the heart about the legendary pianist who had transitioned the day before, and how hard it was to imagine a world without him. “He was inspired and inspiring,” Lovano declared. “His legacy will live on.” When Lovano “sings” on tenor, it is absolutely special, and that was the case here. That said, apart from Benito Gonzalez (who has made a passion project of Tyner’s music in the last couple of years), I can’t think of anyone better to breathe life into these pieces than Kimbrough, whose own sense of control, light and lyric also belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Due to the increasing number of coronavirus patients in New York, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency Saturday afternoon, imploring people to “self-quarantine” in their homes. Apparently, the full house at Senate Garage didn’t get that memo – or, if they did, then everyone in the crowd believed in the healing power of music, and the otherworldly power Joe Lovano wields when he picks up an ax and begins to express himself properly.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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