Universal Language is one of Joe Lovano's most ambitious and successsful albums, an attempt to prove the clichй that music is indeed the universal language. He does this by writing a set of ten original compositions that cover a broad spectrum of sounds and styles, from hard bop to worldbeat-influenced post-bop. His band - trumpeter Tim Hagans, drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Kenny Werner, vocalist Judi Silvano and bassists Charlie Haden, Scott Lee and Steve Swallow - handle the subtleties of the music expertly, bringing the melodic themes into unexpected territory. Silvano's voice is used as texture, not a lead instrument, which helps give the music complexity and an otherworldly depth. It's an unabashedly adventurous and risky project, and it works frighteningly well.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine (All Music Guide)
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There seem to be no limits to Joe Lovano's musical horizons. Each new encounter with this remarkable player and composer - live or on record ; in a big band or small group - brings surprises, all of them pleasant. Impressive from the start (this listener first caught Joe, amazingly, some 20 years ago, with Woody Herman) his instrumental mastery continues to expand: on this album, we hear him on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones; alto clarinet; and wood flute - not to mention tuned gongs and percussion. And as a composer (all but one of the pieces here are his) he is finding an identity that may become as unmistakable as the one he already has as a player.
Joe wants us to hear this record as "a concert set; each tune has a different form, there are different settings, and we cover a lot of ground. There's been a conscious effort to create a flow." Each of Joe's compositions and even the single standard on the program has a specific meaning and identity vis-a-vis his own musical and personal history.
The many and often lasting musical environments in which Joe has found himself have taught him that music at its best and deepest is a matter of awareness of others as well as yourself. "All the great ensembles I've been lucky to play in have had a band sound," he said. "Relationships make the music great; we all had awareness of each other." As anyone familiar with the career and music of Joe Lovano will know by now, important associations have included the Herman Herd for three years; the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (now the Village Vanguard Monday Night Band for 13 years; Charlie Hadena Liberation Music Orchestra since 1987; the John Scofield Quartet, and, for more than a decade, Paul Motian's splendid trio. And, of course, Joe's earliest musical association with his father. Tony "Big T" Lovano, a prominent and committed jazzman on the Cleveland scene.
Music continues to be a family thing with Joe featured on this album is his wife, Judi Silvano, an experienced singer adept at both jazz and classical music. "Judi and I have been together since 1980," Joe said. "She has a sound and creative input that I've never experienced with any other player - and I say 'player' because we use her voice as an instrument - something I don't think has been properly explored yet."
There are other long-time associates involved. Scott Leo, one of three bassists heard here (and particularly impressive on "Worship") has been a friend since Joe's Boston days in the '70s ("We often played together every day"). Pianist Kenny Werner also goes back to that decade with Joe. Steve Swallow and Joe were together in the Caria Bley band in 1983, and also worked in Europe with bassist Henri Texier's foursome, The Transatlantic Quartet ("another two-bass band," Joe pointed out). Trumpeter Tim Hagans, a Kenton alumnus who spent time in Europe with Thad Jones and Ernie Wilkins, has been a friend since the early '80s. The association with Charlie Haden has already been mentioned. "It's been a thrill to play his music," said Joe. "It's fantastic to have him play mine. He's one of the most creative players In jazz." Joe has worked with some fabulous drummers: Motian, of course; the late Mel Lewis, and another fallen hero, Ed Blackwell. Now we can add the fabulous Jack DeJohnette. "The rhythm section didn't rehearse," Joe explained, "so everything was fresh, and Jack and Charlie's reactions were amazing."
Our concert, which Joe describes as a kind of "culmination of my life as a player 'till now - people and places; feelings about music and scenes; Cleveland, Boston, New York," begins with "Luna Park," named for a Cleveland amusement park in operation from the 1920s into the 1930s. "Everybody talked about it, if they were old enough," Joe said. "It had been right across from where my grandma lived. I tried for a carnival feeling here, like the early days of Prez." This is a showcase for the band with Judi and Tim, with collective ensemble effects (Joe is on soprano, on which, as on all his horns, he has a great sound, and which, unlike many practitioners, he keeps In tune at all times): a fine open-horn Hagans' solo; Swallow sounding like a guitar (well, electric bass is also known as bass guitar, right?), and, as throughout, a very active role for the drummer.
Sculpture" changes the mood and texture. Inspired, Joe said, by Coltrane's "Expression," it has form, Joe explained, "but really takes it's shape from the playing of the rhythm section, spontaneity through tempo. With a different rhythm section, it would be completely different." The atmosphere is modal, meditative, sometimes declamatory. The piano solo is marked by unusual voicing. ("Kenny's the perfect piano player," said Joe, whose tenor is authoritative here.)
"Josie And Rosie," Joe's mother and aunt, "were my biggest critics and fans. Aunt Rose was a singer; she knew tunes, was hip to Ella, and prepared me for lessons. My mother loved music. This is based on Woodyn' You," and I did it as a dedication to Dizzy; now it's become a memorial tribute. I play alto here, my original horn." With the alto, the blend of trumpet, voice and saxophone takes on a different hue from "Luna Park." There are some Monkish touches in this swinging, up-tempo ride. A drum solo early in the proceedings brings to mind Joe's live performances, in which the solo order is never predictable, thankfully - another one of those things that make his music so fresh. He has his own conception on alto, too. Hagans is fleet and crisp, clearly someone to hear more from; Werner has great ears and takes no rests. Hear Judi's high note ending!
"This Is Always," put in the books by Bird, Garner and Earl Coleman, was a tune Joe's father played; he has a tape of him doing it with organ trio. The tempo's brighter than usual for this tune, and Joe calls it "a walking ballad, in two; Dad played it like that." There are two basses here, and Joe pointed out that Steve Swallow plays "a chordal part, with a pick, in the register of the piano's left hand; very supportive of the tenor." Steve takes an interesting solo, and Joe's very relaxed here, with a fine rhythmic-melodic flow, climbing into the upper register for the last eight and effective ending. (Joe, who also plays in the Smithsonian's Jazz Masterpiece Orchestra, is clearly at home with the tradition but infuses it with a natural, non-reconstructive feeling.)
"Worship," "about mediation and peace," features remarkable interplay between Joe, Judi and Scott Lee's bowed bass. Joe's on soprano here, but also plays the gongs, something he's been into for a while. In fact, the piece is written in the key of the gongs. Prayer-like, incantorial, this music is wholly original. The two sopranos alternatively entwine and separate, harmonize and merge in unison. Throughout, the arco bass maintains a solid foundation - and stays in tune.
"Cleveland Circle" is dedicated to Joe's Cleveland connection, to Boston's Cleveland Circle, where Joe lived while attending Berklee School of Music in 1971, and to New York, where Joe would rather live than anywhere else. It explores, the composer said, "different dimensions of rhythm and tempo. Jack sets a new tempo for his solo, which I take up, and I hand over to Tim... not just one solo after another, and not just playing free, but staying within the structure of the song." Lots of activity here, rhythmic and harmonic. At times, DeJohnette gets into an Elvin Jones groove, while Joe's overblowing (he goes "out" here, but always musically) reminds of later Trane. Hagans' good solo starts up high and stays there, and there are some interesting tenor-piano unison figures. Silvano again blends well with the other horns.
"The Dawn Of Time" is a warm, expansive ballad. "Tunes like this," said Joe, "are the foundation of my playing. Ken and Charlie and Jack play so open here." And Joe is authoritative, building, painting a picture. This story has a lovely ending, with Jack's the last word.
"Lost Nations" is dedicated to the late Jim Pepper. "We played together with Paul (Motian), and I learned a lot from him about Native Americans. This is kind of a folk song." Joe plays both soprano sax and alto clarinet here. The latter instrument, he explained, "has tenor range but goes lower - like an extension of the tenor sax. James Farber, our engineer, set me up so that I could switch horns in midstream." On soprano at first, Joe improvises freely over a bass-drum figure, which is taken up by trumpet and voice as Joe continues, exploring all registers including the warm middle. A three-way unison theme appears; then each voice goes its own way, contrapuntally, before they come together once more. The alto clarinet adds yet another tonal color. The bass figure is there throughout, we fade on it.
"Hypnosis" does achieve a "kind of hypnotic feel," Joe said, pointing out that Charlie Haden "plays a fantastic solo." Perhaps not least due to Haden's strong role, there is an Ornette aura to this performance, free in form yet song-like in pattern, with a fine collective spirit. It also swings (as does much of Ornette), Joe's tenor contributing greatly to the rhythmic flow.
"Chelsea Rendezvous," a 12-bar theme, was on Joe's second record for Soul Note, in a tenor-piano-drums version. This one is much extended, though the only original tune not specifically written for this album. "This is about my New York scene," Joe said (Chelsea is the part of Manhattan where he makes his home), "playing with Judi and Tim and Scott. Think of it as our encore." Joe is heard here on tenor, alto clarinet, wood flute, gong and percussion (the flute and percussion are overdubbed, the only such technology employed on the album). Joe opens on tenor with bass and drums only and a ballad feel. As , he goes into harmonics on the horn, his sound doesn't seem distorted but pleasing to the ear. Judi joins him, and as they duet, they take turns leading, drums very inventive behind. As muted trumpet enters and Judi scats, Joe switches to flute, and after Hagans.' Miles-like solo, Joe does his gong thing, then solos on alto clarinet (odd that such an attractive instrument should be so seldom used, but maybe it takes Joe Lovano to make it sound this good). Judi joins Joe for an "echo" effect, and then Joe returns to the tenor, harmonizing with Judi, taking it home, thematically.
If you feel like me about this music, one encore from Joe Lovano won't be enough Fortunately Joe travels widely - during 1992, he was heard all over Europe, in Japan and Hong Kong, Latin America, and throughout the U.S. And aside from his own records, he is much in demand as a featured guest and continues as a regular with the groups we mentioned at the start of these comments. So you won't have much trouble getting to that encore, and many more.
As the 1990s move along, Joe Lovano's strong and beautiful music is bound to become ever more prominent on the jazz scene. To hear this marvelous. musician unfold his gifts is a never-ending pleasure - for the ears - and the heart!
- Dan Morgenstern