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June 2002

Joe Lovano
Viva Caruso
Blue Note Records

The beauty of Joe Lovano paying homage to Enrico Caruso is that very few of Lovano's fans have ever heard the legendary opera superstar, let alone have the requisite familiarity with his recordings to gauge the saxophonist's interpretations. Subsequently, the only nut Lovano has to turn is making good music that stands on its own. Lovano does exactly that on Viva Caruso, a largely convivial album refreshingly free of the stereotypical melodrama and bombast associated with such Caruso signatures as "O Sole Mio," which Lovano mercifully deflates in his own reading.

Lovano's penchant for understatement is evident in his use of twin basses (Ed Schuller and Scott Lee) and drummers (Carmen Castaldi uses brushes while Bob Meyer uses mallets) to transform the opener, "Vesto la Giubba" from I Pagliacci, into a hushed Coltraneish dirge. The initial austerity of Lovano's lament gives way to breathy lyricism and finally a resolute edge; by keeping a tight lid on the theatrics that usually hijacks the piece, Lovano intensifies the drama. Arranger Byron Olson's charts for a woodwind-heavy large ensemble achieve similar results on pieces like "Tarantella Sincera," which effortlessly shifts between melancholy and lilting swing.

Lovano is also well served by accordionist Gil Goldstein, who forgoes pat heaving chords and showboat embellishments on Lovano's buoyant "The Streets of Naples." Instead, his single-note shadowing of the theme and use of sustained notes and chords during Lovano's agile solo gives drummer Joey Baron enough space to keep the piece rhythmically bright, without becoming overly ebullient. Goldstein's own solo is well constructed, built upon descending figures that could have mired the flow of the piece, had he not taken such effective means to help establish and buttress it.

While these central components do most of the heavy lifting for the bulk of the album, Lovano is wise enough to introduce new contrasting elements on the penultimate track, his four-part "Il Carnivale di Pulcinella," that significantly expand the scope of the program. On the aptly titled first movement, "Joyous Dance," Judi Silvano's voice, Michael Bocian's acoustic guitar and Jamey Haddad's frame drum gives the ensemble a folkloric tint, while Billy Drewes' clarinet solo brings the music to a simmer. Lovano then deftly cross fades tracks, bringing up "Romance," a ballad teaming Silvano, Bocian, Castaldi's brushwork and Lovano's smoldering tenor. With trombonist Gary Valente and trumpeter Herb Robertson contributing hair-raising bellows and shrieks, "The Bite" and "Wild Tarantella" end the suite with a frenzy unhinted at during the preceding hour of music.

Originally published in June 2002
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