Trio Fascination

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The sax-bass-drums trio is a rigorous format, placing a heavy burden on the horn player who not only has to fill up most of the solo space, but do it sans the chordal coloring of a prompting piano. It takes more than just chops to pull it off -- you have to be interesting, a condition which Joe Lovano achieves only intermittently. He has the postmodern, mixed-blessing gift of eclectic virtuosity, being able to speak in several voices, each one convincingly. This is a talent, no doubt, but one which tends to obscure his own identity. On "Ghost of a Chance," the old-style romanticism of his breathy tenor references Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins filtered through a Lester Youngian tonality. His alto on "Studio Rivbea" has the faintly falling phrasing we're familiar with from Ornette. And "Days of Yore" is more than just Trane-influenced, it sounds like an impersonation -- though in fairness one should point out that the homage is meant to be explicit.

But to be less than thrilled with Lovano is to be unmoved by fin de siècle jazz in general. This is a state-of-the-art set. The trio is rounded out by bassist Dave Holland, always articulate, and the legendary Elvin Jones, still as polyrhythmically explosive as ever and more gracefully aggressive when the time is right. And though Lovano has a stylishly mutable style, he has no shortage of improvisational ideas -- the paint barely dries on one series of strokes before a new sequence is being offered. It's just that everything sounds borrowed. Brilliantly borrowed, maybe, but still an exercise relying somewhat more on memory than imagination.

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