Joe Lovano has been something of an enigma over the past few years, difficult to pin down but fascinating to observe as he flits from project to project. Most recently, the Cleveland-bred reedman has turned his attention to opera, collecting his musings on a new Blue Note album entitled “Viva Caruso” — which provided the repertoire at this satisfying, low-key perf.
While he can tend toward bombast at times, Lovano maintained a restrained, elegant tone throughout the set, his tenor wending wistfully through the lush thickets created by the Street Band’s two bassists. The interplay was particularly effective during more upbeat numbers, such as “Compane a sera (Evening Bells)” — which was laced with a hint of bossa nova — and a sweet, airy rendition of “Tarantella Sincera.”
On more pensive pieces, the septet’s restraint proved a bit stifling, however: “I Pagliacci” and “Pecche?” both drifted along somewhat aimlessly, their arrangements a bit more ornate than necessary. Lovano’s original compositions didn’t differ appreciably from the traditional material in tenor, but the playing was considerably more spirited –particularly on the part of accordionist Gil Goldstein (who added a charming Mediterranean air to “Streets of Naples”) and clarinet player Billy Drewes (a standout on “Viva Caruso”).
Judi Silvano, who alternated between flute and wordless vocals, added a lovely high-end counterpoint to Lovano’s largely lower-register playing. The leader really only cut loose on the four-part “Il Carnevale di Pulcinella,” which slowly evolved from a dreamy ballad into a no-holds-barred celebration of the Italian tarantella. Were it peppered with a few more moments like that, the perf would have been as emotionally engrossing as it was intellectually admirable.