Dyad Plays Puccini-- Lou Caimano / Eric Olsen

One may listen to this enthralling CD and wonder why more jazz musicians are not attracted to the strength and beauty of these Puccini themes and arias, many of which should be familiar to even those listeners least interested in or fond of opera. For this series of duets between alto saxophonist Lou Caimano and pianist Eric Olsen, Caimano takes the lead on all the melodies, but the two musicians share about equally in terms of producing eloquent and passionate improvisations during their artful arrangements (seven by Caimano, three by Olsen). Caimano has been a New York freelancer since 1981, performing with Broadway and symphony orchestras, as well as with artists ranging from The Four Tops and The Temptations to Gary Burton, Clark Terry, and Nancy Wilson. He is also the founder and director of The Ridgewood Conservatory in Paramus, NJ, and has taught at several universities. Olsen has worked with numerous jazz and classical musicians, and also opera singers such as Kevin Maynor, with whom he has recorded four albums. He teaches at three different institutions.

The melody of "Musetta's Waltz" (from La Bohème) is expressively played by Caimino with his rich, appealing vibrato, while Olsen supplies sensitive accompaniment. Olsen's solo is bluesy and thematically creative, with vibrant runs and ringing chords, and Caimano soars with sincere emotion in his improv before he and the pianist seamlessly revisit the alluring theme. After Olsen's intro, Caimano unveils "Ch'ella mi creda" (La Fanciulla del West) with a deeper, saddened tone prior to bursting forth in contrast with gospel-like exuberance. Olsen's statement preaches rousingly to the congregation, and Caimano retains that sensibility with a keenness of sound and fervor remindful of both Phil Woods (one of his teachers) and David Sanborn. For the "Act 1 Overture" from Madama Butterfly, the duo engage in some infectious counterpoint to start. Caimano then plays and interprets the theme with wailing vigor as Olsen prods him forcefully. The pianist's unaccompanied fugue-like interlude gradually builds momentum thanks to his relentless left-hand figures, which bring to mind the likes of Dave McKenna. The reprise leads to further variations in a string of zestful exchanges that never lack for invention.

Olsen's ethereal, wondrous prelude sets the stage for Caimano's poignant legato reading of "Che gelida manina" (from La Bohème), as the pianist offers empathizing chords and motifs. Olsen's delicately trickling solo brings on a more emphatically urgent Caimano in response, whose energy his collaborator deftly locks into. The piece eventually comes full circle for a soothing release. The treatment of "In quelle trine morbide" (Manon Lescaut) has a stately, reverent air about it, with occasional outcries that have an effective impact. Olsen's examination possesses the romantic flavor of one of Keith Jarrett's lyrical flights of fancy. The recap ups the ante, with Caimano truly evoking an opera singer through his heartfelt emotionalism. The alto saxophonist's initial lower range presentation of the aria "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi is replaced by a more piercing articulation for his improvisation, which gracefully balances elation with pathos. Olsen's compelling solo mixes buoyant lines with trills, and he and Caimano subsequently touch base in hearty contrapuntal and call and response passages that segue into an endearing diminuendo conclusion.

The pianist's subtle vamp both precedes and continues on through Caimano's sometimes searing always sympathetic evocation of "Un bel di" (Madama Butterfly). Olsen's pulsating, blues-infected solo is followed by Caimano's ecstatic expansion above the keyboardist's potent chord structures. The altoist's tenderly felt reprise is enhanced by Olsen's cascading arpeggios and his returning vamp. For "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca, Olsen's fluttering motif sets off Caimano's declaratory, beseeching pronouncement. The pianist's melancholy solo displays great depth of feeling, and Caimano's own if anything elevates this mood with his resourceful variety of intonations and constructs. The memorable reprise can only be described as emotionally draining. Olsen's dramatic and then lilting opening to "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" (La Rondine) is succeeded by Caimano's crystalline rendering of the yearning theme, as the pianist reacts with a diverse stream of effects and the saxophonist launches a propulsive, pleading improv. Olsen's take swings exuberantly and keeps its momentum even through Caimano's irrepressible final impressions.

Caimano's inaugural testimony for the closing selection, "Nessun dorma" (Turandot), is by turns brooding and mystical until it finally explodes stirringly. Olsen mostly vamps before embarking on a Middle Eastern flavored excursion that both charms and provokes. Caimano's solo is somewhat reminiscent of fellow altoist John Handy's exalted playing in a similar vein with musicians from India. The duo wrap up the piece on a suitably tranquil and satisfying note.

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Scott Albin