Friday, September 12, 2008

Joe Lovano With Strings

Why do bad things happen to good people? One of the most important questions in human history, and arguably the question that most religious doctrine is designed to answer, "Why do bad things happen to good people" is a pretty important phrase. When you tweak it a little bit you can get questions that apply to almost any situation you could find yourself in. "Why can't I get laid even though I work for the Red Cross" for example. If you tweak it even a little bit more, you wind up with a question that applies to Joe Lovano's "Symphonica," recorded with WDR Radio Big Band and Orchestra: Why do bad string arrangements happen to good musicians?

I suppose there is one easy answer to that question: string arrangements in jazz are bad. Even the greatest symphonic jazz album ever, "Charlie Parker With Strings," was filled with overwrought sentiment; the album probably would have been better if it had been simply called "Charlie Parker." Granted, there are exceptions, Jenny Scheinman's "Crossing the Field," which comes out on CD next month, utilizes a full orchestra in parts, and is without question one of the best albums of the year.

Lovano plays well through-out; granted, his playing here has nothing on last year's "Kids," with Hank Jones, but he manages to show his off-kilter harmonic vision through-out with his angular runs and odd note choice. The other soloists, who include Paul Shigihara on guitar and Karolina Strassmayer on alto sax, are also capable players, although they play it safer than Lovano. The tunes themselves are pretty great; a smattering of songs from Lovano's illustrious career, the best of which are "Eternal Joy," which features some knotty lines, and "Alexander the Great."

So then what is it, exactly, that makes "Symphonica" so terrible? The arrangements. Certain songs are arranged more than others- a harrowingly sappy "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" comes to mind. Of course there are exceptions, and the closer, a take on the changes from "Body and Soul" called "I'm All For You" features some brilliant playing from Lovano and an arrangement that manages to dodge melodrama. For the most part, though, the feeling after hearing "Symphonica" is a lot like the feeling after eating too many mallowmars; a bloated, sugary mess of a feeling that almost certainly leads to a nap, possibly before you've even finished.

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