On May 15, 2021, Mario Pavone passed away following a 17-year battle with cancer. To say that the bassist went out swinging might sound cloying, but that’s essentially what he did in his final months. In February and March, he convened two recording sessions with two different quartets, interpreting six of the same compositions. As can now be heard on Blue Vertical and Isabella, an 80-year-old artist took advantage of the all-too-rare chance to shape the final chapter of a rich musical life.
Blue Vertical features Pavone’s Dialect Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, plus trumpeter Dave Ballou, who wrote the arrangements. Pavone writes with a unique voice, similar in some ways to Paul Motian’s: Melodies are direct and inviting, with subtle rhythmic shifts that don’t exert themselves too aggressively. Of the two groups, this one moves in a freer direction. It feels like Mitchell and Sorey want to pull things apart during Ballou’s solo in “Twardzik” while Pavone holds the center together. More pushing and tugging with time happen in “Philosophy Series,” though its structure stays intact. “Face Music,” one of the tracks not doubled on both albums, starts off feeling somber, as if Pavone were reflecting on the end of the line. But rather than mourn the inevitable, the quartet soon builds up a joyous fire.
Isabella was recorded by Pavone’s Tampa Quartet: his son Michael on guitar, Mike DiRubbo on alto saxophone, and Michael Sarin (who previously played with Pavone in Thomas Chapin’s trio) on drums. The more “in” of the two groups, this quartet nonetheless pushes outward quite a bit. Sarin accents the music in unexpected places, liberating the groove, while the younger Pavone often takes rhythmic liberties during his solos. On the surface, their version of “Philosophy Series” comes off as much more restrained than the Dialect Trio’s, but the guitar solo is harmonically freer. DiRubbo plays with a raw alto tone as well.
Throughout both albums, Pavone plays with aggression. His signature approach to his instrument—grabbing the strings and fiercely plucking them—cuts through the music and adds extra color to his son’s solo on Isabella’s title track, a tune dedicated to a granddaughter who died young. The bass solo in “Legacy Stories,” from Blue Vertical, moves at an unhurried pace with great vibrato. Not all musicians get to make such a strong final statement. It’s nice to know that Pavone did. RIP, Mr. P.