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Rush Hour (Blue Note)
By Bob Bahr
Like many jazz fans, I have an almost allergic reaction to the use of a string section on albums. Besides a few very notable exceptions (such as Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain), strings and jazz make sugar. Charlie Parker's brilliance was smothered by strings on several albums. Other artists have used strings for lush accents – and get a peripheral element at best. A few went a bit farther and asked classically trained string players to attempt improvisation. Ugh.
So it's understandable that Blue Note downplayed the orchestration angle in their packaging of the Joe Lovano/Gunther Schuller collaboration Rush Hour. The history is not good. This disc is.
Eight of the thirteen tracks are played by a little big band, a 20-plus group playing violins, brass, reeds, harp and rhythm instruments. A smaller combo plays on the Ornette Coleman composition "Kathline Gray," and saxophonist Lovano duets with soprano vocalist Judi Silvano on two songs and goes it alone on two more. Composer/arranger/conductor Schuller evidently notated each composition fully, but the players here don't seem like canned, disinterested session players. Listen to the atonal, hair-raising brilliance of "Rush Hour on 23rd Street" for proof.
Lovano has center stage, but he is surrounded by musicians with similarly astute abilities and instincts and they are armed with Schuller's score. Clearly, this is more than just a mere vehicle for Lovano's masterful reed playing; Rush Hour is more Schuller's than Lovano's. Lovano is like a talented actor in a well-written, well-directed film.
To examine Schuller's role in this album, consider his treatment of "Crepuscule with Nellie," one of Thelonius Monk's most beautiful tunes. Schuller is wise enough to leave Monk's eccentric song structure intact, but subtle additions throughout – an ascending line from a bassoon, constant adjustment and readjustment of dynamics – make this interpretation rival Monk's own idiosyncratic version.
Stepping back a bit to gain perspective, Schuller's overall vision for this project is impressive as well. From the opening swell of Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" to the Lovano showcase of Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" at the end, this album makes sense. It is well paced and flows naturally and seamlessly.
In all this talk about Schuller, don't get the impression that Lovano is a victim of a Schuller steamroller. Schuller weaves three Lovano compositions into this opus, including the bouncy nuvo-bop of "Wildcat" (on which Lovano plays both drums and tenor sax, with no other instrumentation), the chillingly dissonant "Juniper's Garden" and the wicked "Topsy Turvy." And on every tune, Lovano demonstrates the highest blend of technique and soulful emotion. He is credited as co-producer and he obviously had input on the project.
Another musician stands out on Rush Hour: vocalist Judi Silvano. She demonstrates the purity of a classically trained voice and the insight of a jazz vocalist in her performances, which serve as atmosphere in some instances and as a soloing instrument in others. A listener is not likely to forget her tangle with Lovano's soprano saxophone on "Juniper's Garden."
Engrossing, surprising, challenging and accessible, Rush Hour is an achievement (well documented in the extensive liner notes) and a new standard. Schuller and Lovano have boldly mixed jazz genres in a well-arranged and orchestrated format and the result is one helluva record.