Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21st

June 21st, the longest day of the year, and the basswood trees are beginning to flower. That’s among the sweetest of nature’s smells, I think, though in some years it’s much more prominent and widespread than others.

Summer has been here for three weeks at least, and Friday we were treated to a superb summer evening, courtesy of the city of St. Paul and a host of sponsors who had arranged for a few sets of top-flight jazz in Mears Park. We arrived at six armed with fold-up camp chairs and secured a table on the far side of the aisle but in full view of the stage—ideal not only for hearing the music but also for watching people move back and forth on their way to the beer vendors.

Sean Jones, voted Downbeat Magazine’s “Rising Star” in both 2006 and 2007 (I guess he just kept rising) was exchanging fours with saxophonist Brian Hogans when we arrived—a brash, exciting sound that the quintet sustained pretty well throughout a music-packed ninety-minute set that was marred only by some good-natured but long-winded introductions during which the trumpeter explained the “meaning” of numbers with names like “Love is Everywhere.”

An hour later Joe Lovano took the stage with a quintet featuring two drummers. He was in high spirits, reeling off a succession of rollicking improvisations and elaborate cadenzas that reminded me a little of Sonny Rollins in his prime, though with slightly less growl and a little more delicacy and deftness at dancing on either side of the beat. A half-moon was shining above Galtier Place, but at one point in the evening a pair of very bright white lights also came on from a rooftop in the opposite direction, giving the entire park, which had become packed with people, a carnival atmosphere. Following a succession of numbers strung together one after another with little in the way of closure on any given piece, Lovano did two lovely ballads that suited the nocturnal ambiance and further underscored the ability of the sound system to triumph over the ceaseless buzz of the crowd.

Just last week, at the Jazz Awards in Los Angeles, Lovano was chosen as best tenor saxophonist, his quintet was named best small ensemble, and he also received the record of the year award. As far as I can tell, the plaudits were well-deserved. Though his one-horn group could not deliver the same harmonic richness the Jones ensemble served up, the soloing itself was more consistently thoughtful and engaging. And in any case, when you’re sitting in a park on a warm summer evening with a river running through a birch grove off to the left, men, women and children camped out everywhere you look on their sophisticated aluminum chairs, golden lights beaming across the park from the bars and restaurants along Sixth street—on such occasions, the magic of the evening fuses everything into an unforgettably warm and lovely summer event.

As the MC was clearing the park after the performance, he remarked that Lovano would be up at the Artist’s Quarter later in the evening at a jam session. A delightful prospect—but imagine the crowds. And just how much later is later?

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