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Joe Lovano 

52nd Street Themes (Blue Note)

This excellent CD by Cleveland-born tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano (it also features Cleveland composer/arrangers Tadd Dameron and Willie Smith) could have been a rather corny revival session if it weren't for Lovano's strong leadership. Lovano, who is among the great contemporary tenor players, initially met Dameron and Smith through his father, Tony Lovano, a tenor saxophonist who worked with both of them. Later, Lovano and Smith played saxophone together in Jack McDuff's band -- a group for which Smith wrote. Lovano has always wanted to get the unsung Smith more recognition, and here he's succeeded by putting together an album featuring five compositions by Dameron and arrangements by Smith.

To help matters along, Lovano has assembled an all-star, medium-sized band, including trumpeter Tim Hagans, trombonist Conrad Herwig, alto saxophonist Steve Slagle, baritonist Gary Simulyan, pianist John Hicks, bassist Dennis Ervin, drummer Lewis Nash, and tenor saxophonists Ralph Lalama and George Garzone. Lovano's playing is prominently featured, but he also gives the other musicians room to solo. In addition to Dameron's selections, there are pieces here by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis, and George Gershwin. Smith's expertly crafted arrangements have a timeless quality to them. His voicings, for example, are not as open as Tadd's; consequently, they're smoother, though less richly grainy. Smith also contributed "Deal," an original song which has a unique form. Not all of the selections are cut by the full group, which adds interest to this CD. "Charlie Chan" is by the three tenor saxophonists and the rhythm section, a Hicks-Lovano duo plays "Passion Power," and Lovano performs unaccompanied on "Abstractions on 52nd Street," his rearrangement of motifs from Monk's "52nd Street Theme."

Everyone on the record plays beautifully: Herwig is a masterful and unsung trombonist, Hagans improvises at the top of his game, and Lovano is magnificent. Despite being a superb technician, he deliberately uses blurred phrasing to give his solos textural variety. It's hard to imagine anyone but Lovano being able to put together a collection of older compositions, remaining faithful to their characters, and creating such a fresh album.

More by Harvey Pekar



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