Saxophonist Joe Lovano describes his one and only duet gig with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba as "a magical thing." In March 1995, they performed for four nights at Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif., playing largely impromptu versions of jazz classics. Two years later, they made "Flying Colors" in a comparably casual manner; they got together one January afternoon, played 20 tunes and the next day spent seven hours in the studio recording deftly conversational, free-wheeling versions of Tadd Dameron's bebopping "Hot House," Thelonious Monk's eccentric waltz "Ugly Beauty," Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty" and other standards and originals. "Flying Colors" also contains open-ended improvisations, as on their "My Hyde," and slyly indirect ballads, such as the thoughtful, spaciously conceived "I Love Music," which Rubalcaba opens out of tempo and with a few spare notes.
Both these musicians are virtuosos and can play powerhouse jazz. But here, they choose to be thoughtful, carefully engaging with their compositions and with each other. Rubalcaba begins an Irving Berlin song, "How Deep Is the Ocean," with a single held note that he lets ring in splendid isolation before answering it with a chord. He's most of the way through his introduction before we receive the first hints of the theme, but the mood is set, and Lovano sustains it with an equally oblique rendering of the melody, which has never before sounded so meditative.
The disc also has its lively moments, as in the title tune, a bouncy Lovano blues whose theme, played mostly in unison by the two, wanders cheerily like a 4-year-old let loose in a playground. Lovano and Rubalcaba play "Along Came Betty" with the graceful insouciance the tune suggests. They manage to avoid bebopping clichis on "Hot House," and they try different tactics in their spontaneous arrangements and different instruments. Lovano plays Paul Motian's "Phantasm" on the alto clarinet, and he lets Rubalcaba state the melody. Elsewhere, Lovano rushes between horns, tenor and alto sax and drums and gongs. The disc was self-produced, and evidently engineer Mark Levinson set up his microphones and stayed out of the way. The results justify the procedure: The spirit, intelligence and wit of these duets, along with the sense of tranquillity and direction beneath their sparkle, make "Flying Colors" one of the jazz discs of the year.