Given the death-defying projects Joe Lovano has been doing lately, a live disc with an orchestra doesn't sound like real heavy lifting. Sad to say, this disc's title dovetails painfully with the lightweight image "jazz with strings" so richly deserves. Fortunately, Symphonica neatly avoids the easy road and its many pitfalls. Given the emotional content of the material, there's no way Lovano could have taken that route.
At the disc's core is a collection of unadulterated love songs -- that is, compositions penned for people who are not just loved, but respected and admired. Lovano wrote the lush opener "Emperor Jones" with Elvin Jones in mind, though mentor Hank Jones and ex-employer Thad Jones get a nod as well; the adrenaline-filled "Alexander the Great" is Lovano's tribute to a fellow Cleveland saxman, Joe Alexander; "His Dreams" is a tender shout-out to Tony "Big T" Lovano, who knew his son was destined for massive things; and "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" (the only standard on Symphonica) is Charles Mingus' love letter to the father-figure who both inspired and frustrated him.
For this project, Lovano chose the WDR Big Band and Orchestra -- the immensely talented German unit that pushed Joe Zawinul's last disc through the sound barrier. Musical director Michael Abene's arrangements give Lovano's work support structures that are both intimate and complex. The strings don't just sit there like a big fluffy pillow, either: They help "Alexander" transition from chaos to straight swing, and their elegant work on "Sound of Love" evokes the expansive Ellington suites Stefon Harris explored in African Tarantella.
You don't get a "perfect" sound from Lovano. What you do get is honest, emotional and deeply rooted in the moment. His soprano sax soars on the ebullient "Eternal Joy," and his interaction with WDR guitarist Paul Shigihara on "The Dawn of Time" is staggering. The orchestra may be tough to take for fans of Saxophone Summit, ScoLoHoFo or SFJazz Collective, but Symphonica is daring on its own terms. After all, strings are usually used to take the edge off jazz; instead, Lovano remains razor-sharp, as usual.