LOVANO: Space Exploration. Shooting Stars. The Flight. Sky Miles. Midnight March. DOUGLAS: Life on Earth. Manitou. Antiquity to Outer Space. The Transcendentalists. Pythagoras / Joe Lovano, t-sax; Dave Douglas, tpt; Lawrence Fields, pno; Linda May Han Oh, bs; Joey Baron, dm / Greenleaf Records (no number)
Prior to hearing this recording, I was pretty familiar with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who has been on the scene for decades and plays in a multitude of styles, both traditional and modern, but trumpeter Dave Douglas was a new name to me. Eleven years younger than Lovano, Douglas is a jazz composer with more than 500 published titles to his name and a jazz educator in addition to being a performer.
On this recent release, they team up with pianist Lawrence Fields, Linda May Han Oh and drummer Joey Baron to play a program of music that is “spacey” both in concept and construction. Younger listeners will undoubtedly think that this approach is a novel one, but those who know jazz history will hear it as a successor to those space-age pieces written and recorded in the 1950s by the likes of Shorty Rogers and his Giants (Martians Go Home, Martians Come Back and Martians Stay Home), Larry Elgart (Impressions of Outer Space), George Russell (Jazz in the Space Age) and even the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra with their weird ambient-sounding orchestrations.
Nonetheless, this is a splendid disc, the centerpiece of which is Lovano’s “Other Worlds Suite.” Although Sky Miles was the first piece he wrote which set this “space” theme in motion, it is not part of the suite, but Space Exploration, Shooting Stars and The Flight are. Another interesting aspect of this music is that, if you simply don’t think of it or approach it as music with a “space” theme, it sounds like some of the tempo-shifting, harmonically advanced experiments that Charles Mingus pursued in the early 1960s with his small groups and, a bit later, with larger bands. Either way, there’s a lot of jazz music history blended into these original compositions.
Drummer Joey Baron is a key player in all of this music. His constantly mobile, shape-shifting figures and cymbal washes create what rhythmic movement there is in there pieces, and it is to his credit that he never overplays on any of the tracks. Bassist Han Oh is not a powerful presence, but her keen ear for both harmony and rhythm make her often subtle lines fit in perfectly. Pianist Fields keeps to sparse playing as well. In fact, the entire rhythm section, though vitally important to the success of these performances, respects and understands their role as key contributors who are also supposed to be “subtle supporters” of the two horns, and they thus bring more to the table than they would if they were banging and twanging away in a more ostentatious fashion.
Douglas has a fat, rich trumpet tone and, although he shows great chops at times, he too plays in a somewhat minimal style. Only Lovano really takes advantage of all this subtlety to push himself into outside realms at times.
Despite their “spaciness” and lack of melodies that stick to the mind, each of the compositions on this set is an interesting one because they don’t follow any standard patterns. Although Douglas’ pieces have a most regular rhythmic pattern in this set, these too are varied, Life on Earth being in a straight 4 while Manitou is in 3/4 though you really can’t call it a jazz waltz because it alternates with bars in 4/4 and 5/4. According to Lovano and Douglas, nearly every track on this album was made in a single take, largely due to the bandstand chemistry this quintet achieved while playing at the Village Vanguard in New York. Douglas explains it this way: “We played a different set list every night, every set, because the order you play things in has a big influence on how they develop. So each night, different tunes would bump up against different tunes. We really figured out the dynamics of the whole thing, and by the time we got to the studio, we knew.”
Even at the most excitable moments in these performances, the music on Other Worlds has a curiously calming effect, as if one were floating through space but listening to jazz instead of rock or classical. If you can find a video online that has a long, continuous shot of Earth from outer space and watch that as you listen, you’ll get some idea of what I mean. Antiquity to Outer Space is a Douglas composition that opens in a slow mood, with amorphous figures played out of tempo, but once the main part of the piece begins, we get a stronger rhythm, although here Douglas varies not only the tempo but the pace considerably. Fields gets a long, single-note solo that reminded me a bit of early Paul Bley. Han Oh isn’t heard on this track until about the 3:30 mark, when she enters playing bowed counter-figures to Douglas’ beautifully etched trumpet solo. Then a pause, and it’s Lovano’s turn, accompanied only by Baron playing tom-toms and cymbals. Once again, the intuition that these musicians bred between each other paid off brilliantly on this recording. Is this composed music that sounds improvised, or improvised music that sounds composed? You be the judge. Near the very end, the tempo picks up as the quintet concludes the piece.
On the Flight, the two horns play what sounds like a four-ish tempo while Fields is playing in 3 behind them, then we get some nice polyphonic interplay for a few bars before the solos begin. This one almost has a kind of Thelonious Monk vibe to it. Eventually, both Douglas and Lovano explode in a way that they’ve managed to rein in during the previous tracks, and it makes a very effective contrast. The Transcendentalists slows things down again, to a ballad-like 4, and concentrates on the two horn players while Fields strokes some well-placed chords in the background before taking his own solo and Han Oh walks gingerly through the space debris.
Sky Miles wakes things up again with a fanfare-like opening and a fast-paced melodic line built over descending chromatics from the bass. Then the tempo deconstructs as Douglas plays a free-form solo over roiling piano, meticulously-placed bass notes and cymbal washes. The tempo again moves into slow, amorphous territory for Fields’ solo.
I’ve seldom heard a recent jazz album that has pleased and intrigued me as much from start to finish as Other Worlds. This is truly creative, open-ended jazz at its very best, defying easy categorization despite the occasional reminders of some of their predecessors. This is timeless music that will continue to reach out to people for years to come.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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