Joe Lovano,
52nd Street Themes
(Blue Note, 2000)

I wish I had a nickname like "Hard Times." That might be all it would take to make me a jazz or blues great. Unfortunately, my favorite nickname has already been taken by David "Fathead" Newman, a fine jazz tenor-sax player. How could he not be?

Joe Lovano is another fine player. He was voted Best Jazz Tenor in 2000 by Downbeat Magazine. Joe isn't much of a nickname, so maybe talent counts, too, and he shows a lot of it on this album. He wisely covered both bases though by having an old friend, the venerable Willie "Face" Smith, do the orchestrations on the many tracks for nonet.

Lovano's had a string of strong albums, but on this one he and the others sound like they're enjoying themselves even more than usual -- letting loose in a be-bop style they love. The other musicians include at least three from the Mingus Big Band which, I digress, always sounds like it's enjoying itself. In fact I saw the band at The Fez in New York one night when a trombonist was enjoying himself so much he couldn't find his sheet music -- a severe disadvantage on a night they were sight-reading new arrangements.

But back to 52nd Street Themes. The album features ensemble work for multiple saxes, a trumpet and a trombone. An emphasis on tenor saxes gives the group a sound that is meaty rather than brassy. Lovano gets most of the solo time. Other strong soloists include Steve Slagle (alto), John Hicks (piano) and Conrad Herwig (trombone). Slagle should be better known than he is. He's been consistently solid in his work with the Mingus Big Band. Hear him leading his own smaller group in the recent New New York album on the Omni Tone label.

The tunes on 52nd Street Themes were written by Tadd Dameron, Miles, Monk and others. There's a good mix of moods and tempos. The album notes say Joe didn't want to create a nostalgic tribute to the pioneers of be-bop, but I think that's just what he has done, and it's a good thing. Joe and his partners can play, and this was one of the best jazz albums issued during the year 2000, even if Joe IS a pretty lame nickname.

[ by Ron Bierman ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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