Sandwiched between performances by pianists Ivan Lins and Bob James, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild’s current season presented an act that found the Grammy-winning institution pushing themselves beyond their neo-traditional jazz image. Having Joe Lovano open the Bad Plus’ show might have been a way to ensure that Guild diehards would show up, but Pittsburgh doesn’t often get players of this caliber outside of the Guild or the Pitt Jazz Seminar anyway, so we should be grateful. Besides, that’s quite a bill no matter where it happens.
Lovano’s quartet, with pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Otis Brown, opened their set with a couple of pieces from last year’s Streams of Expression album. The tenor saxophonist displayed a skill at stretching himself during solos while maintaining an understated sonority. Some upper-register wails during “Streams” were pealed off without excessive volume. Speaking of volume, Spalding’s bass often got lost in the mix, giving the music a nuance that was felt but not always heard, except when she took a solo. It detracted from the overall set since her melodic and technical commands of her instrument were in full effect. This was apparent during the plucked and strummed intro of “Lonely Woman” which went through a number of evolutions before Lovano finally whipped out the mutant aulochrome. Basically a double-soprano sax, it possesses a nasal sound like an oboe with more opportunities for bent notes, which Lovano exploited during his blues encore.