The star of "52nd Street Themes," Joe Lovano's new disc, is of course Lovano, who -- as he demonstrated first in his years with the Mel Lewis big band, and more recently in a series of artfully arranged, powerfully played Blue Note sessions -- is the most intriguing tenor saxophonist on the scene today. Here he is celebrating the "street that never slept," 52nd Street, specifically the Manhattan block between Fifth and Sixth avenues that for two decades starting in the '30s was lined by jazz clubs that featured everything from Dixieland to bop, and everybody from Art Tatum to Eddie Condon to Dizzy Gillespie.
On "52nd Street Themes," Lovano focuses on the once famous, but always troubled, composer-band leader Tadd Dameron, whose purring pieces from the '40s and '50s, pieces such as the classic "Good Bait," draw on both bop and swing. Lovano plays five Dameron tunes, mostly as arranged for nonet by Willie "Face" Smith, a now elderly Cleveland native who was Dameron's friend and student. Dominated by the reeds, the arrangements expertly reproduce Dameron's relaxed modernist swing, his gentle flow of melody, tip-toeing bounce and unaffected sensuousness. Yet they often have a kind of submerged power, perhaps because Smith doesn't obscure the lines or over-thicken the textures.
Lovano looks for variety in the presentation. He plays Dameron's uptempo "The Scene Is Clean" accompanied only by drums and bass. With his murmuring, rushed style, and with an anxious burr in his tone, he sounds like someone whispering secrets on the run. Lovano can suggest a less expansive, more urgent Sonny Rollins. Up high, he gets a slightly out-of-control wail. But the range of his sounds and the tact of his playing distinguishes him: In a duet with John Hicks, he plays a deliberate, affecting "Passion Flower," the ballad that Ellington made famous. Hicks has rarely sounded better, more focused and lyrical, than here and elsewhere on this session.
Lovano roars into "52nd Street Theme" after a two-minute solo improvisation that seems to dance around the themes of the bop era in an oblique, funny tribute. Elsewhere, the emphasis is on the arrangements, but, with his typical good sense. Everywhere Lovano demonstrates his ability to recast compositions important to jazz history and make them his own. I am not sure how many younger musicians would think to play the delightfully easygoing boppish Dameron piece "Whatever Possess'd Me," which Lovano renders here. Or the beautiful ballad "Theme for Ernie," which Coltrane played in the '50s, and which has since more or less disappeared. Lovano is a stunning saxophonist and a suave arranger whose tuneful reconstructions of earlier pieces remind us of the wealth of music that went down on 52nd Street.