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Joe Lovano started playing the saxophone aged five. Soon he was sitting in on his saxophonist father’s gigs and, still in his teens, had started a long association with the big bands of Woody Herman and Mel Lewis. It is a traditional grounding given Lovano’s eclectic interests – third- stream experimentalism, edgy avant-funk and his own Italian-American heritage are all in the mix – but it welds everything into a coherent whole and marks him as a genuine stylist on the tenor sax.
At this Barbican gig, Lovano’s pot-pourri of jazz history reverberated through every facet of his music, from solos which darted from fleet-fingered lyricism to growling harmonics, through the warm textures of the five-piece brass section to the very sound of his tenor sax – he gives the sensuous rasp of pre-war swing an airy upper register and then throws in a dash of free-form screeching.
Opening with Tad Dameron’s 1940s’ classic “On A Misty Night”, there was a strong echo of post-war New York cool throughout the two-hour set – Gunther Schuller’s “Birth of the Cool Suite” was a centrepiece – but there was also modal free-form with a huddle of competing saxophones and an everybody-has-a-go finale based on the blues. Although other soloists had space – sharp-toned alto sax and flighty trumpet stood out – Lovano’s emotionally committed playing had centre-stage.
The real magic of the evening, however, came from the opening set by 84-year-old Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, making his first professional UK appearance since his 1949 gig with Benny Goodman. Here he delivered an impressionist repertoire with the scampering virtuosity of be-bop and the poignant tone of a bandoleon, accompanied only by Fred Hersch’s empathetic grand piano. As the musical dialogue evolved, Thielemans, perched on a bar stool, swaying with sheer intensity of expression, played with an emotional force and intellectual rigour that not even Lovano could match.
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