Grand Slam,
Live at the Regattabar
(Telarc Jazz, 2000)

Grand Slam is the name of the quartet configuration comprising Joe Lovano on saxes and alto clarinet, Jim Hall on guitar, George Mraz on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. These four players are the current cream of their respective instruments, and Grand Slam quite predictably proves to be far more than just the sum of its parts. But what isn't so predictable is the kind of music these players create here.

As Bob Blumenthal's perceptive liner notes mention (and does he ever write any other kind?), Hall and Lovano are often typecast as "the quiet introvert" and "the boisterous post-bopper," but what you'll hear on this CD will stand those preconceptions on their heads. This is intense and deeply thought music that may challenge the listener as much as the musicians.

The tone is set in the first track, "Slam," a Jim Hall composition which presents a musical conversation, point/counterpoint, between the instruments, each man speaking his improvisational piece while the others state the theme. Lovano proves his prowess with a lengthy and brooding statement, while Hall plays an amazing two-voice solo, harmonizing with himself on every note. Mraz offers a pulsating but lyrical bass solo before the ensemble trades lines with Nash, whose rhythmic versatility shines in every measure. Lovano's thoughtful "Chelsea Rendezvous" gets another hearing here. The lines interweave while the drum makes rhythmic comments as a solo voice rather than providing an underlying groove. That job falls to Mraz, whose propulsive force leads the tune into the regions of swing, with both Hall and Lovano (on his second solo) grooving fluidly. It ends as it began, with a pensive, free rhythm epilogue.

"Border Crossing" starts with a unison melodic statement, the drums escorting the front line into the second theme, also in unison. Lovano, on soprano sax, does some nice trading of lines with Mraz, followed by more two-voice work from Hall. The rhythm remains loose, with Nash supplying accents and remarks, and the whole thing ends on a moody and cryptic note. "Say Hello to Calypso" does just that. Hall starts out subtle and restrained, then gets such interesting voicings out of the guitar that at times it sounds like a combination of a Hammond B-3 and steel pans. Lovano takes a nice in-the-spirit ride, and Nash offers a Calypso-flavored drum solo with backing by Hall.

Nash starts out "Blackwell's Message" with a melodic drum solo that takes us into Lovano's very free alto clarinet solo that achieves an exotic, Eastern sound. Hall offers up some delightfully dissonant and eerie overtones, then climbs the scale a note at a time while Lovano solos passionately overtop. It's a gem of a track. "All Across the City" turns to the traditional ballad form, with Hall elegantly comping Lovano's solo statements, then taking over the theme himself. This is as close as Grand Slam comes to the traditional, with tasteful solos by all. A circular, ascending, M.C. Escher-style line graces the final track, "Feel Free," allowing the soloists to fly off into wild and unrestrained territory. Lovano soars, Hall trades some sumptuous licks with Mraz, and Lovano returns madly and wails over his bandmates before returning with Hall to the main theme.

Grand Slam is a grand band, and their brilliantly conceived and played music was recorded perfectly at this live performance, where the musicians walk the tightrope while the crowd ooohs and aaahs below. It was a great night for both the musicians and the listeners, and I'm glad we have this aural souvenir of it. I really wish I'd been there, and when you hear it, you'll feel the same. This is jazz at its best -- wise, adventurous, and unpredictable.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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