JAMES EMERY

Fourth World
between the lines btl020/EFA10190-2

Guitarist James Emery has finally produced a memorable session of superior chamber jazz under his own leadership after several earlier missteps. However, the acoustic stylist, who has been the paramount exemplar of a group musician during his more than 20 years as a founding member of the String Trio of New York, appears to have done so by ceding most of the spotlight to others.

Throughout most of the nine tracks of this disc — four of which he wrote — master saxophonist Joe Lovano has the major role. Not only does he play his customary tenor and soprano saxophones, but also the C melody saxophone, straight alto saxophones, alto clarinet, shakers, gongs, bells, log drums and even the drum set. His wife, Judi Silvano, adds her shaded wordless vocalese throughout as well. There are times here, in fact, when Emery seems to have put himself in a position like that of another acoustic guitarist, Charlie Byrd, vis-a-vis the famous Jazz Samba LP with Stan Getz. Although they were both co-leaders of that 1962 date, Getz’s nuanced tenor playing gained all the notoriety that accrued from first playing the bossa nova, and when Byrd’s solo was excised from the hit version of “Desafinado” many forget the guitarist was there at all.

Lovano, who is an all-around fine fellow, wouldn’t dream of intentionally overshadowing Emery — something you could never be sure of with Getz. But, as one of the most accomplished tenor stylists of this day, Lovano’s straightforward conception steals the show from the leader as effectively as an experienced character actor does in a minor role even when playing opposite a major movie star. Fourth participant here is bassist Drew Gress, who keeps the rhythmic bottom strong and has the odd solo showcase, but also finds himself literally playing second fiddle to the Lovanos.

With the Byrd-Getz example in mind, it’s instructive to note that “Hannah’s Song”, this date’s only real bossa nova, unrolls as a real collaboration. The guitarist’s steady comping is decorated not only with Silvano’s flute work but also with passages from Lovano’s main horn, which here recall Sonny Rollins’ note construction as much as Getz’s light tone.

In terms of performers associated with the bossa nova, by the way, Silvano would never be confused with Astrid Gilberto. Her flexible soprano voice doesn’t need words to display emotion as she shows on “Golden Horn” and elsewhere. Singing in unison with her husband’s ethereal soprano saxophone, at times the two sound like two parts of a single voice. Emery contributes some single note finger picking here, but Lovano shines both on sax and swinging percussion. When he, as a drummer, backs himself as a horn player here and on other tracks, either some overdubbing went on, or Lovano really is a sonic superman as well as a hornman. “Splendido” on the other hand puts Silvano’s bebop bone fides on display, as her scat syllables cries and swoops complement Lovano’s straightahead drum work and Gress’s walking bass.

Even the title tune appears to take at least part of its shape from Lovano’s soloing on different reeds and drums as from the many thematic motifs created for the almost 12- minute outing by Emery, its composer. Elaboration of one motif finger-style on his nylon strings shows just what artistry went into its creation. Yet, with improvisation as important a part of this as the writing, Lovano’s out of tempo tenor asides, Silvano’s ornamental vocalese and an arrangement that breaks the four into double duo partners creates the final product as much as the initial written lines.

Asserting himself on Lovano’s “Worship” — of what, you may ask — Emery introduces a speedy Spanish flamenco section to the tune, which before that appeared to be awash in Orientalism from the saxophonist’s Eastern sounding gongs and percussion and single string guitar lines, which seem to reference the Far East.

Interestingly enough, Emery’s almost nine-minute duet composition for Lovano and himself is called “The Next Level”. With the saxophonist playing what could only be described as macho soprano, the guitarist matches him every step of the way. He constructs whorls and patterns in mid-range when the saxophonist stays in that range, but scurries up the strings to the top of his instrument’s neck when Lovano sounds freak high notes.

All in all, this is one of the finest pieces of music that Emery has released under his own name, with every track offering something of interest. But be aware, that it’s as much Lovano’s triumph as the leader’s.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Bellflower 2. Golden Horn 3. Fourth World 4. Worship 5. Splendido 6. La Scala 7. The Next Level 8. In A Secret Place 9. Hannah’s Song

Personnel: Joe Lovano (tenor, soprano, C melody, straight alto saxophones, alto clarinet, shakers, gongs, bells, log drums, drums); James Emery (acoustic guitar); Drew Gress (bass); Judi Silvano (flute, voice)