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Growing up in an Italian-American household in Cleveland during the 1950s and '60s, Joe Lovano breathed in Frank Sinatra's music as unthinkingly as he breathed in the air. Young Joe's dad Tony was a weekend saxophonist who specialized in standards, and Aunt Rose knew the lyric to every Sinatra record ever made. So it was only natural that Joe grew up to be a tenor saxophonist himself and make an album called Celebrating Sinatra
It's not what you might think, however. This is no nostalgic retread of a bygone era. This is an ambitious project by one of the most gifted jazz musicians of the '90s, an innovator who doesn't revive Sinatra's tunes so much as he reinvents them. The only vocals on the album come from Lovano's wife, Judi Silvano, who accompanies the saxophone rather than the other way around. Her ethereal soprano harmonies and elastic scat improvisations play much the same role in the arrangements that Ted Nash's clarinet and Dick Oatts's flute do. Instead, the lead voice is Lovano's sax, which produces a sound so brawny and yet warm that it achieves the same blend of bravado and sensitivity that Sinatra's vocals once did. Rather than merely follow Ol' Blue Eyes, though, Lovano carves whole new trails through chord changes offered up by the likes of Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Sinatra himself. The saxophonist always states the original melody in the first chorus, but he's quick to reveal how many ways the theme can be bent and twisted without losing its emotional core.
Keeping the rhythmic swing crisp and clean is the all-star rhythm section of pianist Kenny Werner, drummer Al Foster, and bassist George Mraz. Playing the Nelson Riddle role of arranger and/or conductor on eight of the 13 tunes is Manny Albam, who favors subtle art-music settings rather than slam-bang rave-ups. These emotionally suggestive settings seem to bring out the best in Lovano, who plays each phrase as if it carried a slightly different message. When he stretches out the notes on George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" with a perfect intimation of desire and need, he recalls the lyrics so effectively that there's no need for anyone to articulate them. --Geoffrey Himes