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Joe Lovano at the Kennedy Center

Friday evening at the Kennedy Center saw another performance in their Beyond Category series. The group in question was the Joe Lovano Nonet presenting their Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" Suite. It turned out to be a highly enjoyable evening, although it was not exactly what I was expecting from the concert's title.

The Birth of the Cool refers to trumpeter Miles Davis' nine piece ensemble that made a series of historic recordings in 1949, while appearing briefly at New York's Royal Roost club. The group, which featured a unique instrumentation and arrangements by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Carisi and John Lewis, started a whole new school of jazz, the "Cool" school, while beginning the process that was to launch Miles Davis to national prominence. The Birth of the Cool recordings, and the later Davis sessions that emerged from them, those featuring the trumpeter with orchestras led by Gil Evans as well as the famous Kind of Blue, are generally regarded as among the most important in jazz, even if critic Stanley Crouch dismissed them as "highly celebrated but essentially lightweight." Some months ago, the Monterey Jazz Festival approached Joe Lovano and asked him to put together a group to re-visit this group and its arrangements. In some ways this was a strange request. Lovano is certainly a fine musician, and the leader of his own Grammy-winning nine piece group. But Lovano is a tenor saxophonist, and the only major instrument not found in the Birth of the Cool group was the tenor saxophone; it featured trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto and baritone saxophone and rhythm. Lovano's nonet not only features Lovano's tenor prominently but also has another fine tenor player in Ralph Llama. It did not seem a perfect fit.

Lovano solved the problem by turning to one of the members of Miles original ensemble. Gunther Schuller played French horn in the 1949 sessions but today he is better known as a composer and arranger, as well as the architect of the "Third Stream Music" program at the New England Conservatory. Schuller re-arranged three of the original Birth of the Cool pieces, Gil Evans' Moon Dreams, Denzil's Best's Move and Cleo Henry's Boplicity. With these as the central component, Lovano and saxophonist/arranger Steve Slagel have added pieces by Lovano, Tad Dameron and John Coltrane to create a suite that both contains explicit reference to the Miles Davis recordings, while also adding a new dimension that displays more recent elements of jazz history. This was probably a wise approach; the originals have already had one revival some years ago a 1992 recording called Re-Birth of the Cool under Gerry Mulligan's name. In addition, the current work lends itself to the talents of Lovano's ensemble.

It was evident from the outset that Lovano is not afraid of competition; he has certainly surrounded himself with some outstanding soloists. All of them were in display in the first piece, Lovano's own At The Vanguard, named for the location of the group's most recent live recording, now issued on CD as On this day... at the Vanguard on Blue Note records. Lovano has not always been my favorite tenor player, sometimes his lines seem over chromatic and lack clarity. By contrast, all the other saxophonists impressed mightily: Slagel and Llama both exhibited great invention and clarity of line at a very fast tempo, while Gary Smulyan, easily the shortest of the three saxophonists, handled the big horn with authority. Trumpeter Barry Reis, trombonist Larry Farrell and pianist James Weidman contributed fine solos and then everyone traded eights and fours with drummer Billy Drummond before bringing the piece to a conclusion.

As a transition to Miles Davis material, the nonet then dug into a medium tempo Tad Dameron piece, Focus, on which Lovano stretched out again and which also gave bassist Dennis Irwin a chance to shine.

This brought us to the three Birth of the Cool originals. Schuller's arrangements captured the spirit of the originals while adapting them well to the nonet's instrumentation. Move was beautifully executed, and Lovano's solo went a long way to changing my opinion of his work, achieving a fine balance between boppish lines, chromatic flurries and vocalized interjections. It says a lot that this version stood up well both next to the original recording, and also with another classic version, on the Art Pepper + Eleven recording, from 1959.

After evoking 1949, the group switched gears, moved forward fourteen years, and introduced what was perhaps the climax of the evening, Steve Slagel's arrangement of Coltrane's After the Rain, from 1963, which Lovano turned into a Tour de Force in a lengthy and mesmerizing duet with Drummond. This was dedicated to Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones who passed away May 18th. Having achieved this peak of intensity, the evening ended on a lighter note with another up-tempo romp, Willie Smith's Deal that once again featured solo outings by the whole group. It was a powerful performance, rewarded by a standing ovation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Joe Lovano Nonet
  • Concert Date: 5/21/2004
  • Subtitle: Miles Davis' 'Birth of the Cool' Suite
  • Venue: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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