By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
TWO DAYS BEFORE the release of Flying Colors, tenor (and sometimes soprano) man Joe Lovano hooked up with the Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba for a set of duets at New York's Village Vanguard. In the midst of their first set, while the two gently maneuvered through the opening chords of Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty," a subway train could be heard rattling past the basement-level jazz club. In that moment, a technically staggering exhibition morphed into one of those nights to remember: There was Monk's urban melancholy moored by Lovano's beefy, bluesy half-note slurs, streaked with the tears of Rubalcaba's dreamy lyricism--all accented by the faraway sounds of the city's daily grind.
The duo's studio set of hard-bop standards (including "Ugly Beauty") and off-beat originals pales in comparison. Not only because there's no metropolitan magic--including rumbling trains--but because neither musician, especially Rubalcaba, has room to breathe and grow. No track on Flying Colors is longer than the seven-minute version of Emil Boyd's "I Love Music," and most--such as Ornette Coleman's "Bird Food" and Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean"--clock in at around five. For most evolving improvisationalists this is more than enough time to develop an idea, exorcise it, then dig into a well-traveled case of tricks. When the 34-year-old Rubalcaba isn't given ample space to roam, however, it's hard not to feel teased, if not a little cheated. Similarly, Lovano is best when involved in a loose, open-ended jam session, or while painting expansive, experimental soundscapes. On the clipped Flying Colors, he seems to be flailing, as his normally expressive annotations are reduced to a spattering of empty honks and impetuous howls.
It's too bad Lovano wasn't invited to sit in with Rubalcaba and drummer Paul Motian on bassist Charlie Haden's The Montreal Tapes. This live recording begins with a relaxed musing from Rubalcaba ("Vignette"), simmers slowly on top of Motian's rhythmic fire ("La Pasionaria"), then burns into a collective frenzy, which finds the normally circumspect Haden swinging with abandon ("Solar"). Often unfairly associated with gooey, albeit substantial atmospherics, the bassist keeps time in a thundering storm.
Despite Haden's joyous coming out (not to mention his role as Verve's "headliner"), the gig owes its energy to Rubalcaba, who gives the set a lyrical heart and bombastic soul, and delivers both with Swiss-time precision. Freed from the artificial constraints of Flying Colors, he exposes his unique lineage and promising future. At age 8 he began to train classically at Cuba's Amadio Roldan Conservatory; as a teen he made money playing samba-soaked street carnivals; at age 20 he was taken in by the aging Dizzy Gillespie. Now he's mining his past and challenging those rooted in jazz tradition to dislodge themselves from convention, or simply step aside.