Joe Lovano: "Coltrane Revisited"

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Friday September 25, 2009

From The New York Times
By Nate Chinen

Joe Lovano, jovial but focused, brought his tenor saxophone to his lips at Birdland on Wednesday night, taking charge without preamble or pause. With his first few notes he traced a syncopated vamp, quickly adopted by the bassist Lonnie Plaxico and the drummer Andrew Cyrille. Then Mr. Lovano pulled back, letting the groove lock in, and started splashing colors around: a plunging eighth-note line, a foghorn low tone, a fast chromatic scribble. He was making himself at home, with casual effort but concentrated effect.

Mr. Lovano and his partners are working this week as Coltrane Revisited, a project he has mobilized roughly every year this decade to celebrate John Coltrane’s birthday. (Wednesday would have been his 83rd.) As usual, the joint headliner is the pianist Steve Kuhn, who worked in an early incarnation of Coltrane’s landmark quartet at the dawn of the 1960s. Mr. Kuhn waited a while to make his entrance during the set’s opener, ‘Fifth House,’ but when he did, partway through Mr. Lovano’s solo, the chords he chimed refocused the picture, sharpening every detail.

Because Mr. Kuhn has a strong new album, ‘Mostly Coltrane’ (ECM), credited to the Steve Kuhn Trio with Joe Lovano, it might seem likely that his voice would dominate. It didn’t, despite his thoughtfully poetic solo introduction to ‘Central Park West’ and the gently undulating background he fashioned for another ballad, ‘Crescent.’ Mr. Kuhn’s playing through much of the set was crisp and wryly witty but also restrained. He wasn’t out to mystify or overwhelm, as pianists often try to do in a Coltrane vein. (His replacement in the Coltrane quartet, McCoy Tyner, set a high standard for rumbling drama.)

So Mr. Lovano carried the momentum, asserting a broad-shouldered presence in the music. He has a fix on the Coltrane language firm enough to allow for slangy liberties, and he sounded just as natural weaving through a set of changes as he did bearing down on a hymnlike melody. The distinctive huff of his cadence turned every cavalcade of notes into a single exhalation; the faintly nasal twang of his tone made each ballad feel like a human entreaty. He made you think of Coltrane, but not at the cost of his own identity.

In stretches the rhythm section wasn’t as tight as it could have been. But ‘Configuration,’ a zipperlike jolt of ascent from Coltrane’s late period, played to everyone’s strengths. Mr. Cyrille started it forcefully, free of tempo, and Mr. Lovano joined him, blustering without snarl. Eventually it was Mr. Kuhn’s turn, and he owned it, ripping through the melody, then slowing it down. He dug back in, dragging his knuckles across the keys, and then he held out both arms straight, like a condor in midglide.

Coltrane Revisited performs through Saturday at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton, (212) 581-3080,

photo by Joe Kohen for the New York Times