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October 2008

Joe Lovano
Symphonica
Blue Note Records

Although he has peppered his lengthy catalog with the occasional tribute album (Celebrating Sinatra, Viva Caruso), prolific tenorist Joe Lovano has not taken much time to look back and reconsider his own efforts. But it is hard for any composer to resist an offer to hear his music played by a symphony, and here, on his 20th Blue Note release, Lovano has succumbed to the entreaties of conductor Michael Abene and the WDR Orchestra of Cologne, Germany, and chosen seven tunes from his repertoire (six of his originals, plus Charles Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” which Lovano recorded on his Village Rhythm album) for symphonic arrangement. Typical of Lovano, the results are anything but ordinary.

“Emperor Jones” (first heard on Lovano’s Blue Note debut, Landmarks) makes for a calm and conventional ballad opening, with the strings seemingly borrowed from a Gordon Jenkins session of the 1950s, and setting the stage for some warm saxophone work from Lovano. The closing track, “I’m All for You” (from the album of the same name), is another ballad, its orchestration more reminiscent of Nelson Riddle. But in between, Lovano and Abene give the orchestra some challenges, starting with the bop-influenced “Eternal Joy” (from Trio Fascination). The orchestra also has to be on its toes for the dramatic “Alexander the Great” (from Friendly Fire), another bop number with some involved and sometimes fast-paced passages. The more reflective “His Dreams” (the only studio recording on what is otherwise a live date, first heard on Village Rhythm) provides some respite before “The Dawn of Time” (from Universal Language), which boasts the most interplay among the horns and some surprising electric guitar work.

On his tribute albums, Lovano has shown a tendency to avoid sentimentality and take a rigorous approach to his musical heroes. It’s good to see he’s no less sparing of himself here.

Originally published in October 2008
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