Get our free newsletter
The orchestra on a “Jazz Soloist With Strings”-style album is largely window dressing: The album lives or dies by the soloist. Saxophonist Joe Lovano, in fact, gives only three members of Germany’s massive WDR Radio Big Band & Orchestra solo time on Symphonica, a live CD of a 2005 show in Cologne that puts his compositions in an orchestral setting. Those players do add new dimensions to the music—particularly altoist Karolina Strassmayer, who solos and duels with Lovano on “Alexander the Great.” But Lovano, who distinguished himself in the big bands of Woody Herman and Mel Lewis, knows that ultimately each gig depends on the headliner. He protects the tunes from being recast purely for lush orchestration, a common mistake with such efforts; instead, WDR director Michael Abene’s arrangements mold themselves to the demands of each track. On the Ornette-ish “Eternal Joy,” for example, strings and horns provide minor-key backgrounds that create a sharp tension against Lovano’s bouncy soprano (and belie the song title). Woodwinds establish the strident mood of fusion piece “The Dawn of Time,” horns and drums providing a rock ’n’ roll stomp. Only once does orchestration trump composition—“Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” the only piece not written by Lovano—and the result is an elaborate mush in which Charles Mingus’ melody frequently gets lost. Elsewhere, Lovano freely mines the depths of his own work. The strings’ romantic chording on the opening ballad, “Emperor Jones,” is effective, but the track is most memorable because of Lovano’s sotto voce, no-stone-unturned tenor exploration. (Frank Chastenier also has a lovely piano turn.) Likewise, the rousing, dramatic intro to “Alexander the Great” evaporates at the launch of Lovano’s run-on bebop marathon. The latter is a particular triumph, as idea after sophisticated idea tumbles out of his horn: riffs, blues, yelps, conversational phrases, and long flutters of notes with a momentum that Strassmayer, spectacular though her solo is, can’t quite match without detouring through the standard bop devices that Lovano neatly avoids. Indeed, the players sharing solo time on Symphonica are less frontline partners than foils for Lovano. On “The Dawn of Time,” guitarist Paul Shigihara channels John Scofield (for whom Lovano originally wrote the piece) in his slightly sloppy rock phrasing; after a few horn blasts, Lovano takes over, but his tenor solo sounds eerily like a mimicry of Shigihara’s guitar attack and licks. The trick is Lovano’s nod to the guitar player, but it’s also a subtle suggestion that he could play many more roles than he does here. The unspoken message on Symphonica, then, is that no matter how many musicians share his stage, none share Lovano’s spotlight. The orchestra knows this and gives him not only color but also the freedom to develop his ideas, both compositional and improvisatory.