Joe Lovano’s 2019 album, eponymously titled Trio Tapestry, opens with unhurried saxophone against an assortment of…
Joe Lovano’s 2019 album, eponymously titled Trio Tapestry, opens with unhurried saxophone against an assortment of bells, gongs and cymbals, the tintinnabulations strewn with seeming randomness throughout the track. A Zen-temple duet, it immediately signals the outlier nature of this music within Lovano’s discography. And that’s saying something: A defining saxophonist of 21st-century jazz, he has ranged from pure energy music on one hand to lushly orchestrated operatic themes on the other. By contrast, this music — created by Lovano, pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi — meanders mindfully: a sharp but gentle left turn from Lovano’s signature swagger and swing. It doesn’t inspire toe-tapping or finger-snapping. Lovano himself has described the music as “songs of expression where rhythm doesn’t dictate the flow. This is not a band that starts from the beat. The momentum is in the melody and the harmonic sequence, and rhythm evolves within each piece in a very free-flowing manner.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, the critically adored Trio Tapestry marked Lovano’s first recording as a leader for ECM Records.) On the trio’s follow-up album, this year’s Garden of Expression, the compositions are a bit shapelier, more defined but no less spacious. The opening “Chapel Song” poses a haunting mystery that rises from the mists of spirituality, with sparse tenor, moody piano and drum colorations; the indelible title track rides harmonies perched somewhere between English madrigals and modern art-folk. The gossamer melody of “Night Creatures” wafts above Crispell’s restless arpeggios, shadowed by Castaldi’s expressionist percussion. The concluding “Zen Like,” the album’s longest track, returns to where it all started, with temple blocks and bell jars, joined by plucked piano strings and eventually tárogató (an Eastern European wind instrument), in a quieting tone poem against an unfamiliar soundscape.
Guided by the most intimate playing of Lovano’s career, Garden of Expression centers the listener, nudging us toward meditation without inducing sleep. It has a confounding ability to fire the intellect without disturbing the serene space it engenders.“It’s like a haiku,” Castaldi says, “where you just touch on certain ideas — words, tones — that point to something. A good haiku is not shut, you know. It’s not a definition. It’s an observation. It’s a moment in time; it’s the eternal now.”When most of us hear the phrase “jazz trio,” we flash on the classic threesome of piano, bass and drums in an iconic equilibrium of melody, harmony and rhythm. Not coincidentally, this configuration has occupied the core of most bands, from quartets to jazz orchestras, for the past 75 years. The trios that don’t fall into that camp have mostly been close cousins led not by piano but by another chordophone, the guitar. Sonny Rollins opened up this concept with his chordless trios of the late 1950s and ’60s, but the bass and drums remained. In fact, the bass has been key. You have to look hard to find a fiddle-less mainstream trio — such as those led by Benny Goodman or Art Tatum (whose wizardry made almost any other musician superfluous) — and these have tended to reside in jazz antiquity. Trio architecture changed dramatically in the 1960s when a handful of musicians began questioning this orthodoxy. On one hand, the swing era clarinetist and ongoing maverick Jimmy Giuffre formed a revered trio featuring pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow (but no drums); even before that, in 1958, Giuffre led a less-heralded trio with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and guitarist Jim Hall (with neither bass nor drums). Lovano remembers that trio’s recordings from the collection of his father, Tony “Big T” Lovano, a well-regarded part-time saxophonist in Cleveland (and offhand acquaintance of Hall during their college years). Such records, he says, gave him the confidence to form a band like Trio Tapestry.
[caption id="attachment_38778" align="alignleft" width="1080"] Joe Lovano (Photo by Jimmy Katz)[/caption]
On the other hand, you had members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the groundbreaking Chicago collective, whose late-’60s experiments with “odd” combinations often eschewed piano, bass, or drums — and sometimes all three. Crispell can speak to what motivated the creation of these unicorns, recalling that in the 1970s, “When I would play with people like [trumpeter] Leo Smith, or [saxophonists] Roscoe Mitchell and then Anthony Braxton” — all founding members of the AACM — “they would talk about how everybody had thought an improvising group had to have drums, or had to have bass or had to have this, and that it was really a limited concept. They thought it was kind of necessary to just get out of the box.” When working out new music or giving weekly concerts, the AACM artists placed less emphasis on traditional instrumentation than on the chemistry among instrumentalists, a process similar to the one that led Lovano to form Trio Tapestry. “I think Joe chose me and Carmen because that was the music he heard,” Crispell continues. “I don’t think it was particularly due to not wanting a bass, or anything like that; it was more that it didn’t have to be a traditional jazz trio.” In a Venn diagram of modern music, the intersection of the circles representing Lovano and Crispell is fairly tiny. Deeply ensconced in the jazz tradition, the saxophonist spent three years in Woody Herman’s big band; a decade later he joined Blue Note Records, the storied symbol of the post-bop era. Crispell first recorded with big bands too, but these were quite untraditional ensembles led by the AACM musicians mentioned above; she came to real prominence in the quartet led by Braxton, whose rigorous methodology stands apart from any tradition at all. Like Lovano, she can tap into a ferocious intensity without sacrificing the narrative. She ranks among the most distinctive and transcendent pianists in the free-jazz realm. But in this century, Crispell has surprised many longtime followers by revealing a softer, more contemplative side, notably on a handful of ECM titles.
She and Lovano first met in the 1980s in New York City, and encountered each other in a few ensembles over the years: In the mid-2000s, he sat in on a Village Vanguard set by Crispell’s trio; later on, she subbed two nights in Lovano’s quintet Us Five. Still, while they knew and admired each other’s music, the Venn diagram would likely have remained vanishingly small — except for the fact that both live in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, where they would occasionally run into each other as far-flung neighbors. And in 2018, when Lovano was asked to present a concert in Newburgh, not far from Crispell’s home in Woodstock, he gave her a call.After she agreed, Lovano contacted Castaldi, whose history with Lovano goes back a lot further: They first met and played together in high school. “It was like a soul connection,” says the drummer, who shares Lovano’s ecumenical taste in music. They left Cleveland together for Berklee in the early ’70s. After college, Lovano headed to New York and Castaldi went west, landing in Los Angeles before eventually returning to Cleveland in the ’90s. But the two never lost touch. Although Castaldi appears on only one of Lovano’s discs — Viva Caruso, from 2002 — he has toured with the saxophonist intermittently through the years, strengthening the bonds of a now half-century friendship.As it turns out, Crispell already had her own connection with Castaldi. In 2016, he recalls, “I’d been listening to her trio with Paul Motian and Gary Peacock, and one day I thought, ‘Man, I love the way she plays. I’m just going to send her a message on Facebook’ — because sometimes it’s nice for a musician to just hear that from someone.” They had never met before. “I wrote a message saying how much I enjoyed that music, and that maybe we’d get to play sometime. And then she writes back, real sweet and open and generous, saying she wanted to hear my playing, so I sent her something.” Next thing he knew, a friend (and fellow fan of Crispell) had found a hall and arranged to fly Crispell to Cleveland for a duo concert — with a Steinway grand, no less — that both speak of glowingly. “And when I mentioned to Joe that Marilyn and I were playing together, I think I could sort of see the wheels turning, like he was thinking, ‘Well, I like playing with both of them; I wonder how that would be as a trio … .’”For their concert in Newburgh, Castaldi drove from Cleveland and Crispell hopped over from Woodstock and, says Lovano, “We just improvised. I brought about five or six different horns, and the idea was every time I switched horns, it was like a different composition. We just flowed, and we ended up creating a through-composed set that was really magical. I sent some of it to Manfred [Eicher at ECM], and he really embraced it.” Within the year, Eicher had them in the studio in New York.
[caption id="attachment_38776" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Lovano, Marilyn Crispell and Carmen Castaldi (Photo: Courtesy the artists)[/caption]
For that initial album, Lovano felt that he needed actual compositions; he didn’t really see ECM issuing an album-length set like the one they had just played. So he began writing material, including a piece called “Seeds of Change.” After the album came out, the piece took on a greater significance for all three musicians. Says Lovano, “That was a strong piece for us, as a trio on tour, and the idea of it — and the title — really led us into the Garden of Expression. It flowered.” The songs for Garden developed in performance as the trio spent much of 2019 touring stateside and especially in Europe, where one of their three continental tours that year landed them in Lugano, an Italian-flavored lakeside town in southern Switzerland. There they had the great advantage of playing a concert the night before recording in the same hall, but without an audience. “The previous night, we played the same compositions, but with a different approach and attitude — because we were playing a concert,” Lovano explains. “So the pieces were stretched out and we got into many variations within those pieces. “Then we came back the next day and played them really more concise,” he continues, “and we captured a mood that sustained throughout the whole session. And that was something special, to have played in that room and feel the sound, and then to come back the next morning and already be comfortable in that space.” The natural acoustics of the hall encouraged the trio to play more softly and with more introspection than would normally occur outside a recording studio, yet still achieve a majestic resonance. “The recital hall sound that Manfred captures in his recordings is usually done in post-production,” Lovano points out, “whereas in this case, we had that sound as we were playing, and that really added to the way the record feels.”
Lovano easily fills a larger-than-life role in the personal as well as musical relationships he fosters. He sounds like he is: hearty, encouraging, with a hipster vibe (descended from ’50s jazz, not latter-day Williamsburg). Thanks to his brainy/soulful musicianship and a grand generosity of spirit, he galvanizes his peers as well as laymen and fans. His revitalization of Crispell’s career offers a telling example.As exhilarated as the pianist felt after the concert in Newburgh, she blanched when Lovano suggested touring with the trio. To begin with, she didn’t really want to travel anymore. Although she radiates an almost elfin agelessness, she had recently turned 70, and after spending years flying to and from Europe — where she has played most of her gigs for decades — she admits, “I had gotten really burned out from commuting overseas, with everything that entails.” More than that, she had begun to feel that her career was at a standstill. The trio she’d led in the early 2000s had begun to peter out even before the 2011 death of its drummer, the storied Paul Motian. She’d been forced to vacate the house she had rented for nearly two decades, which she considered a refuge, and the move contributed to a sense of rootlessness. Work was slow. “I didn’t have a strong sense of direction,” she says. “Much of my musical life has been involved with other musicians, and this was a period of that happening less, so that I felt less inspiration derived from that. I just kind of went into retreat; I went dormant. And then Joe got me out.”At Lovano’s urging, Crispell reluctantly agreed to tour with Trio Tapestry throughout 2019. The tour restored her mojo. “It was such an incredible year,” she says. “We played a lot, and I could feel my energy waking up again, and being transformed, and being so inspired, and just catching a kind of creative fire. And Joe and Carmen, as people, are wonderful to travel with; we all felt very comfortable with each other. It feels like a family. Being with them is one of the only times I’ve toured when I haven’t felt alone in some, just, primal way that I really can’t explain. By the end of 2019, I was raring to go again — like, bring it on. That’s even carried over to invitations I’ve gotten from other people, where my first reaction might have been to say no.” She makes it sound as if the trio has provided a lifeline, a description with which she enthusiastically agrees. Many tenor saxophonists of the past half-century have embraced Sonny Rollins’ “power trio” format of sax, bass and drums, and the context would seem to suit Lovano — with his commanding sound, harmonic ingenuity and emotional range – to a “T.” Nonetheless, he’s made only a handful of such recordings. More germane to the formation of Trio Tapestry was Lovano’s work in Motian’s 1980s trio, which also featured a chord instrument (Bill Frisell’s guitar) and no bass. The instrumentation does not make it predictive: Crispell’s entire approach to sound and improvisation differs markedly from Frisell’s. But Lovano has called that experience foundational to his playing and writing, and it almost certainly supplied some musical muscle memory when he convened Trio Tapestry.The trio’s configuration of instruments and personalities offers a universe of possibility. As Lovano says, “Playing without a bass, it’s the melodic invention and the harmonic rhythm that produce the momentum. And that gives the drummer freedom to play off the melody and the harmony, and interject his own feeling inside it.” But eschewing the time-tested trio structure also means removing the safeguard provided by established roles, which magnifies the need for trust and compatibility that jazz already requires.“With Marilyn on piano,” Lovano explains, “it’s like she’s accompanying me, but she’s also playing with me, in a front-line kind of an attitude.” Castaldi brings a slightly different perspective to the trio. Freed of any timekeeping responsibilities, he references the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s Stillness Speaks to explain his role, saying, “I want to be an opening for what wants to happen with this music, just to be present, to be a facilitator. Let something greater than me do the playing.”Crispell finds Trio Tapestry to be an adaptable gallery for many self-portraits, despite the fact that someone else (namely, Lovano) wrote the compositions. “There’s my abstract self, my romantic self — and these are not mutually exclusive — my wild-energy self, my contemplative self, the self that incorporates my influences.” In Trio Tapestry, she feels no need to tamp down any of those personae. “This music is very wide ranging, while still retaining Joe’s character,” she says, “which is kind of what I try to do in my music — to have my voice come through in all of it, so that transitions between seemingly different aspects of expression are made in an organic way, where it’s not a jolt. And I feel I can relate to all of the stuff Joe does.”To those still nonplussed by Trio Tapestry’s incongruity within his discography, Lovano points out that, “It’s not really a departure, because every time you play, you’re playing with your sounds and your feelings at that time. I was listening recently to ‘Miles Davis Radio’ on Sirius XM and hearing all these different moments in his music. And when he did In a Silent Way, that was a statement about something, how he was feeling, you know. In a way, these recordings are like my In a Silent Way, as I think about how people might perceive it,” he laughs. “But it’s really just a document of a moment trying to create music and sustain a mood.”