Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, three of the most prolific and innovative saxophonists in jazz, have played together periodically since 1996 as an experimental trio known as Saxophone Summit. Telarc has captured this threesome's adventurous energy on their debut recording, Gathering of Spirits.
Brecker, Liebman and Lovano are joined by a world-class rhythm section—pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart—for a set of six tracks that recall the dynamic instrumental discourse long prized in blowing sessions popularized by Jazz at the Philharmonic. Yet stylistically, this music takes it cues from John Coltrane's final epoch, further stretching the boundaries of solo and group improvisation.
Saxophone "battles" have traditionally inspired musicians to play their best. But more than just a cutting contest, this gathering is a multi-faceted musical equation greater than the sum of its parts. Brecker explains that "because we have such well formed musical personalities, when we play together, we create a beautiful matrix, a really fascinating juxtaposition of sounds, colors and rhythmic approaches."
Joe Lovano's "Alexander the Great," based on the chord changes of "Bye Bye Blackbird," opens the musical dialogue displaying the most traditional jazz format on the recording. "The 12th Man," by pianist Markowitz, a long-time Liebman collaborator, is a haunting melody reminiscent of "Maiden Voyage." Here, the soloists work off of modal progressions in several odd rhythmic ostinato patterns.
Two Coltrane compositions are next: "India," which begins with a multi-ethnic flute intro before evolving into the famous recurring matra from the original Coltrane version; and "Peace on Earth," recognized as one of Coltrane's most lyrical melodies.
The music takes an adventurous turn on Liebman's "Tricycle," written especially for the group. Aside from a few harmonic guideposts in the written interludes, this piece is harmonically free, designed to showcase the rhythm section interacting with the diverse soloists.
Brecker's title track, reminiscent of "The Father, Son, Holy Gost" from Coltrane's "Meditations Suite" features a 6/4 African flavored vamp that opens with tenor saxophone multiphonic explorations. The major keyed, lyrical melody then provides the perfect vehicle to extend the already heightened musical conversation.
"Gathering of Spirits" recalls the uninhibited, free playing that characterized the early music of all three saxophonists, who were significantly influenced by Coltrane during their formative years. Like Coltrane's concluding music, their own musical meditations access a diverse emotional and spiritual spectrum.
Liebman believes that because of the controversy surrounding late Coltrane, the music has been "largely under appreciated and unexplored. In his final years, Coltrane's music included amazingly beautiful, lyrical melodies offset by intense, abstract and dissonant free group improvisation."
In jazz today, it is rare for such formidable musicians to play with their peers. The effect of such a colaboration is not lost on their participants. "Every time that we get together it affects a shift in my thinking," Brecker explains. "It causes me to play with a different approach and examine things I hadn't been looking at."
Lovano shares the enthusiasm: "In this setting, we can express our individuality, and at the same time, create music together as a band."
Brecker, Liebman and Lovano are also long-time friends so the trust and support of such astute, adventurous collaborators notably illuminates this gathering. Liebman believes friendship is key to such potent musical discourse: "Long relationships add to the music. Listeners can't help but feel the effect of people playing together who respect and like each other."