CD AND CONCERT REVIEW Experiment and Soul

Saxophone Summit Isn’t a Gimmick

Saxophone Summit

Seraphic Light

Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and Ravi Coltrane

Telarc Records

Performed at Regattabar at the Charles Hotel

Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

A lot of single-instrument groups can be gimmicky — along the lines of, “How many tuba players does it take to make a coherent album?” Many of those efforts are well and good, even virtuosic, but the majority are relegated to narrowly devoted fan-bases — those who, no doubt, brake for vibraphones or are the proud parents of an oboe player — without much chance at breaking through to the larger musical scene.

All of which makes Saxophone Summit an anomaly. On the surface, having three identical melodic instruments in the group seems risky. Most groups strive for more instrumental variety, as it lends greater diversity of tone color, and ultimately more control over the music’s emotional message. It would be odd to make an all-baritone concert choir.

Which is all the more reason to go hear Sax Summit. Starting out in 1996 with legends Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman, the summit has equal parts experiment and soul: a communion — at once connected and disjunct, with the independence of a jam session and the synchronicity of a sacred ritual. It is man yearning simultaneously to break free and to find union.

Their latest album — Seraphic Light — is all the best of that. Ravi Coltrane (son of tenor legend John, who joined the group after Brecker’s death in 2007) doesn’t replace the group’s cofounder, but certainly adds his own distinctive voice. Rhythm from Phil Markowitz on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Billy Hart on drums complements the horns well. Taking much from both late John Coltrane and the more modern fusion avant-garde, the album is both deeply spiritual and experimental. It’s a lot more minimalist than the early avant-garde — not too many of Trane’s “sheets of sound” — but it’s not easy-listening either. You can’t dance to this shit. You just have to sit down and try to keep your head above water as it washes over you.

That can be tough, as I found during their final set at the Regattabar last Thursday. On longer tunes like “Tricycle” (from the 2004 album Gathering of Spirits) and “Seraphic Light,” the group got pretty out, to the point where it was hard to remember where, or what the melody was (or if there was one). Starting off with a minimal bass solo, the group might careen into a twenty-minute jaunt, quoting everything from Mingus to Adeste Fidelis, and filling every harmony in between. Or maybe they’d start with a Latin groove and a driving riff in the horns, and whittle the whole thing down to a couple taps on a ride cymbal. This was particularly the case in the live performance, where the players tend to enjoy more space — a chart that runs for seven minutes on the album might run for twenty live. A lot of this time goes towards the less-heard parts of the group, like bass and drums on “Tricycle,” or different instruments, such as flute (Liebman, Lovano) on “Cosmos” (8th track, Seraphic Light) or aulochrome, a mutant double-sax played by Lovano, also on “Tricycle.”

At the same time, though, the group stays close to their spiritual roots. Both live and on the album, the mellow “All About You” is a good counterpoint to the experimental energy around it, with some solid work by Coltrane. “Message to Mike,” an elegy to Brecker and the opener for the live set had the same gutsy sensitivity, but did so without being somber — a musical “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” with a Horace Silver groove, Wayne Shorter harmonic looseness, and a defiantly Brecker-esque energy. Driving swing from Hart and mysterious voicings from Markowitz lay a good foundation for Liebman, Lovano, and Coltrane to tap into something greater than themselves, and leave a little knot in the listener’s stomach.

Other good tracks to listen for are “The Thirteenth Floor,” with its irresistibly driving seven-time reedy ostinato, and “Alpha and Omega,” with its kaleidoscopic harmonies.

So go out. Listen. Buy the album. Get lost in the untraceable harmonic patterns, and the untappable rhythms. It’ll feel weird at first, but after you come back to the melody, back to a riff you recognize, back to the world around you and the overpriced hors’douvres in front of you, you’ll be just a little better for it.