NEW YORK — Listeners who ventured out on an overcast weeknight to wait in line outside Manhattan's Village Vanguard club and then pack its famous basement Wednesday reaped a rich reward: a rare performance by tenor saxophone titan Joe Lovano with the nonet from his recent 52nd Street Themes album.
"I am only able to bring this nonet into a few places, due to how expensive it is to bring a large group on the road," Lovano said after the gig.
"I am just so proud to bring my version of jazz history into a room like this that just reeks of classic, mind-altering music," he added.
Lovano issued some mind-altering sounds of his own Wednesday as he and the band drew all but one song of its setlist from the 52nd Street Themes songbook. That album combined tunes by bebop-era composer Tadd Dameron with Lovano originals steeped in the Dameron tradition.
The players on the bandstand — including onetime Betty Carter piano accompanist John Hicks — were all featured on the album.
And overall, with the exception of a strange interlude in which critic Stanley Crouch climbed on the stage midsong and began yelling at the band, this was a joyous set, startlingly well-played.
It provided ample display room for Lovano's multiple attributes: his mastery of bop-style improvisation and a "freer" approach; his ability to breathe new life into standards and other tunes that have become clichéd or hackneyed; and a big, brusque sound and confident articulation reminiscent of swing-era giants such as Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and the early sound of post-bop improviser Sonny Rollins. But Lovano is also gutsy, emotional and communicative, echoing the boisterous style of his father, Cleveland-based tenor player Tony "Big T" Lovano.
Lovano and his crew burst through the gates with a charged reading of the tenor man's "Charlie Chan" (RealAudio excerpt). It was set ablaze by a three-tenor cutting contest featuring Ralph Lalama and George Garzone, with Lovano establishing his dominance despite heavy competition from Garzone.
A high-energy romp over the Dameron composition "Hot House" had drummer Lewis Nash trading fours with Lovano, pushing the tenorman to outer limits that seemed to surprise even his bandmates.
Slowing down the pace a bit, the full nonet filled the room with a luscious rendition of George Gershwin's "Embraceable You," featuring a fine baritone solo by Gary Smulyan and a solid contribution by trumpeter Tim Hagans.
In the audience was legendary orchestrator Willie "Face" Smith, Dameron's copyist and compatriot. After introducing Smith, Lovano led his group in a relaxed version of Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," which Smith arranged for the 52nd Street disc. He beamed like a proud parent during the live rendition.
Lovano continues his tour at Chicago's Jazz Showcase May 23–28, and then goes north to the Banff Jazz Festival, May 29–June 3. These performances will be in a trio setting, with bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Idris Muhammed.