Joe Lovano Reconvenes His Tapestry Trio For Introspective ‘Garden Of Expression’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The label alone, ECM, conjures up introspective, chilly, ethereal, haunting as well as glowing, beautiful, shimmering. At least one or two of those adjectives can be ascribed to most of the label releases. We can add spiritual. explorative, edgy, and adventurous to that list too, especially in the case of Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry, who had one of 2019’s most talked about releases, his debut for the ECM label. Theirs is in exercise of extreme focus, sensitivity, and restraint. Over his storied career Lovano finds himself in many settings, leading straight-ahead combos, collaborating with fellow sax icon Dave Liebman on several occasions, mostly recently documented on these pages with the live session by the Kaleidoscope Quintet, issued this past October but recorded in 2013.  Last year Lovano also appeared on a terrific album by pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s trio, Arctic Riff (ECM), also covered previously herein. On Garden of Expression Lovano again teams with ECM stalwart pianist Marilyn Crispell and fellow Cleveland native Carmen Castaldi on drums, for a program of minimal tone poems that explore musical space and its relationship to silence. (Is it my imagination or are we getting more than our fair share of calming albums lately?)

Although he acquired a “tenor titan” reputation over the years and started his career gigging in top-tier organ groups that required a huge sound (with Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith), Lovano has also developed into one of our most introspective saxophonists, armed with a tone that can be a whisper or a confession. Keep in mind that Lovano has long had a deep respect for the spiritual music of Coltrane.  Lovano’s long tenure in the trio of drummer Paul Motian is one touchstone that led to original formation of this trio. In that band, he worked on gorgeous compositions that also used space carefully. The atmospheric guitarist Bill Frisell was his harmonic/melodic counterpoint in that band, one also without a bassist. Playing with Motian also introduced Lovano to Crispell. Here again the pianist and saxophonist explore a set of Lovano originals that allow the performances to seem almost entirely spontaneous, though steeped in sparseness and minimalism at times.  On several occasions it’s just the duo of Lovano and Crispell but Castaldi, when present, helps to create the subtle atmosphere. Consider these titles and the mood of the work is rather obvious – “Chapel Song,” “Night Creatures,” “West of the Moon,” “Garden of Expression,” Treasured Moments,” “The Sacred Chant,” “Dream on That,” and “Zen Like.”

This new album also benefits from its recording at Lugano Switzerland’s Auditorio Stelio Molo SRI studio with highly responsive acoustics, per usual, realized in Manfred Eichner’s production. The trio recorded in the studio on their second European tour in November 2019 after they’d performed a concert in the studio the evening before. “Having given a full performance there, we were very comfortable with the room,” noted Lovano. “The tone there, and the sound and the feeling in that space, built to be a recital room, is amazing. We played forte and really felt it. We played at pianissimo volume, and you heard the music vibrating in the room. And that created a real spiritual delivery on each composition, as we allowed the music to unfold.” 

“Chapel Song” begins like a traditional jazz duo ballad performance, with Lovano on tenor outlining a floating melody as Crispell plays airy, arpeggiated harmonies as accompaniment before her own deliberate solo, after which Lovano returns, again in delicate mode. It is a beautifully balanced piece inspired by Lovano’s experience in a Viennese church listening to the distant strains of an organ. “Night Creatures” brings a more probing, haunting stance again with just piano and tenor saxophone, rhapsodic lines that rise and fall with Crispell’s middle piano solo summoning clusters of notes in a more classical vein. Both these pieces read rather tightly as compositions.  

On “West of the Moon” we hear the full trio with Crispell providing succinct, gorgeously harmonic responses to Lovano’s eloquent statements as Castaldi applies light brushwork. Having spent the summer of 2018 on tour with Diana Krall, this is his response to playing her version of “East of the Sun” night after night. Lovano’s last sustained note certainly invokes the mood of space in keeping with the title. The title track is the first time we really hear Castaldi using his full kit for a piece that’s more animated, edgier, and aggressive than the three precedents. Both Lovano and Castaldi step aside for Crispell’s which uses scales and repetitive figures as if to suggest a quest for answers before she and the drummer engage in more improvisational banter before Lovano returns in the last minute to reprise the theme rather quietly.

“Treasured Moments” returns to the duo format, beginning with Crispell in her signature minimalist style as Lovano joins on soprano, with beautiful tone and reverent approach as the pianist supports ever so carefully, going to the extent of plucking the piano keys to create singular notes. Lovano opens “The Sacred Chant” with gongs, blows a series of short phrases in call and response with his bandmates, Castaldi skittering and Crispell tinkling. The leader becomes more improvisational here, before the piece quickly dissolves.  “Dream On That” has the trio in perhaps in its edgiest, most free jazz -like vein on the album, each making a statement in response to the other rather than uniting behind a common theme. The final piece, and the lengthiest, “Zen Like” brings back the gongs and Crispell’s plucking with singular notes and drum rolls that echo, the emphasis being on space. Lovano only adds to this atmospheric backdrop with in his impeccably sustained notes on his soprano.

Listening to Crispell might have you recall her two dazzling ECM recordings of 1996 and 2000, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway and Amaryllis, each with Gary Peacock’s bass and Motian’s drums. Her playing is grounded in both classical training and the free improvisation scene, yet in the intervening years she has increasingly demonstrated exquisite lyricism as well as a bent for her a non-traditional approach. In fact, to hear her in her most explorative setting, check out her2020 Pyroclastic release How to Turn the Moon. Castaldi’s restraint and space-conscious approach is one that he has shared with Lovano since the ‘70s. 

Lovano shaped pieces that in his words would best display the trio’s unique qualities of “peaceful, non-aggressive delivery.” On his use of playing the saxophone and gongs simultaneously stretching back to his album Tones, Shapes, and Colors, he says “These two recordings – Trio Tapestry and Garden of Expression – are the only albums I’m on that include real moments of silence from the whole group.” At times Garden of Expression will remind listeners of chamber music, imbued with sound colors so carefully articulated by the trio. It will set your imagination spinning with its hushed sequences, suspenseful passages, and soothing ambience. 

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