Classical music and brassy improvisations find harmony in Killian Hall

Lovano’s jazz concert pays fitting tribute to friend and musician Gunther Schuller

Streams of Expression and Love

Performed by Joe Lovano

MIT Killian Hall

Tuesday, October 4

Almost every single seat in MIT’s intimate Killian Hall recital space was filled last Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, for Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s performance, Streams of Expression and Love, which celebrated esteemed jazz musician, composer, and mentor Gunther Schuller. A diverse collection of other instrumentalists also performed with Lovano that evening, including Dr. Frederick Harris, jazz drummer and the director of MIT’s Wind and Jazz Ensembles. Friends and collaborators of Schuller performed as well, including legendary pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Judi Silvano. With the first row of seats in the concert hall mere feet from the performers, the soulful, unpredictable, and at times feverishly vigorous sounds of the assorted jazz selections enveloped the cozy space and the raptly attentive audience for just under two hours.

Kicking off the concert, MIT professor Peter Child introduced his original composition “Moonsculptures,” which was then performed by Lovano, violinist Young-Nam Kim, and pianist Eileen Huang. Child cited as inspiration traditional Korean folk tunes, Lovano’s own work “Sculpture,” as well as Third Stream music (a term coined by the late Gunther Schuller himself to describe the synthesis of classical music and jazz).

The influence was clear in the first movement’s interplay between the long, rich notes of the violin, the steady harmony of the piano, and the deep, plodding reverberations of the saxophone. The meandering sounds and slowness of it all rendered a soundscape that was truly evocative of a quiet moonlit evening. The second movement surged forward at a faster pace with a barrage of seemingly unpredictable piano intervals and a wide dynamic range across all three instruments. Kim nodded and ducked his head to the beat of the music, buoyed perhaps by the swelling energy of the dissonance and speed. A quieter, more reserved third movement rounded the piece out and the silence that punctuated the end of the piece was broken by enthusiastic applause and verbal delight from the audience.

Kim was later joined on stage by violist Danny Kim for the duet “G.S. in Memoriam.” In perhaps one of the most entrancing pieces of the night, the two stringed instruments, each with bows ghosting across the strings, turned a languid eight-note tune into more complex and eerie interplay, reminiscent of an overlapping call-and-response between two dissonant voices.

It wasn’t until after Blake performed a dreamlike “For Gunther” on piano with the lights turned off and the hall illuminated only by dim wall sconces that Lovano once again took the stage and spoke for the first time. Opening with a simple “Hello” that the audience met with warm laughter, it became apparent that Lovano’s voice and character on stage were much like his smooth, wandering improvisations on the saxophone. He spoke sincerely of Schuller’s and his own love of music and introduced his own composition “All Twelve,” as a study and tribute to his old friend Schuller’s own unique sound centered on twelve tone melodies.

Accompanied on stage by bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and Harris on the drums, Lovano plunged right into this high-energy performance that delineated a clear shift in tone and dynamism for the concert as a whole. Harris, along with a plucky bassline and Lovano’s now-familiar crooning saxophone, was mesmerizing on stage at the center of a 360 degree instrumental set-up as he turned around and around, seeking out different timbres and rhythms with a wide collection of mallets and even his own two hands.  

The concert concluded with a performance of “Topsy Turvy” by Lovano, performed by Lovano, Silvano, Kaumeheiwa, and Harris, which provided each performer a solo opportunity to flex their improvisational jazz muscles. Silvano wowed with a clear and precise vocal range and an emotive left hand that waved through the air in sync with her rich vocal sounds. Following a percussive swell and a surge in tempo and volume, the piece barreled forward toward its conclusion where it was met by a roaring applause that lasted for well over a minute. Lovano’s proclamation at the end that the “world of music is a blessing to all of us!” was validated with a resounding “Amen!” from one bold listener and more audience laughter.

The performance as a whole was deeply enjoyable and felt very much like a conversation with an old friend — unplanned, textured with a wide range of emotions and pitch, and interspersed with unexpected detours and a few laughs for good measure. As a tribute to Gunther Schuller, an esteemed jazz musician and dear friend to many, and as an engaging performance, the concert excelled.