Jazz Road trip: Joe Lovano & Kenny Werner at Nighttown
By Gary Finney
For the casual jazz fan attending the January 16 performance at Nighttown, in Cleveland Heights, the musicians must have looked to be an odd pairing. Joe Lovano was attired in a hip looking maroon outfit, with matching beret, while Kenny Werner looked like a scholarly professor. But these two have a rich history of collaboration between them, most recently at Manhattan’s lower east side venue, Stone. Once family and friends concluded their obligatory photo op with their prodigal son, who was last in town nine months beforehand at the Tri-C jazz festival, the lights dimmed and the chemistry between the “alchemist” and the “professor” began.
Breaking the ice with the standard “I Waited For You” Lovano’s tenor was full sounding, yet slightly airy, as he coaxed the melody from his horn. Werner, ever the consummate accompanist, set the tempo with his comping, which was anything but pedestrian. Once Lovano’s tender explorations were quenched, Werner engaged in a solo that slowly blossomed like a brilliant cactus flower. And so an evening that would eventually cover substantial musical territory had begun.
Diametrically contrasting with the opener, the second piece featured scampering runs from both musicians, often at obtuse angles to one another. Notes from the piano, during Werner’s solo, were full of jagged melodic phrases, like a shattered mirror. The surprise here was that while Werner ran free, Lovano seated himself behind the trap kit, abetting some propulsive “juice” to the proceedings that was equally edgy. Who knew? Apparently, all of those gigs with Paul Motian had an unexpected consequence. The tension of the piece was relieved as the final portion became calming and ethereal, floating in the room like an opium-induced dream.
For the balance of the set, mood, tempo and instrumentation were altered to bring an ever changing dynamic to the duo’s dialog. Whether rambunctiously blowing his straight alto sax on “Journey Within” with its hide ‘n seek melody suddenly coalescing into lockstep phrases from both men, or keeping strict time at the drums on a piece where Werner went into full, hard-bop mode, Lovano made it evident that, in his mind, he was just an equal partner in the conversation. The expansive freedom afforded to both musicians gave cause to an exchange of musical ideas more like narrative threads, rather than a platform for gratuitous grandstanding.
And each time that their flights of fancy seemed untethered to a familiar construct, they followed with something that the audience could easily wrap their ears around.
Billy Strayhorn’s “Star-crossed Lovers” was as glowing as a brass bed warmer, full of cherry-red coals between the sheets, even with Lovano’s wry subtleties.
Ending the first set, both men fed their inner hunger to create with a rousing interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years.” Werner’s harmonic facility and shape shifting counterpoint kept Lovano on his toes as he in turn issued emphatic cries, swooping turnarounds and inquisitive deconstruction of what is already a lean melodic framework. The sound was truly joyous. The head was briefly restated and then it was over. Lovano summed it up best himself when he let out a long, slow “Whoooooo.”
February 21, 2014