REVIEW: Joe Lovano, Marilyn Crispell, Carmen Castaldi - Garden Of Expression
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Favorite Track: "West of the Moon" Least Favorite Track: "Zen Like"
The world of jazz music still has some of its most prominent and influential figures alive to continue inspiring and guiding the next generations of musicians. At 81 years old, notorious pianist Herbie Hancock is still touring, teaching at the Hancock Institute of Jazz, and even guest appearing on albums with Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washigton, Terrace Martin, and more. Even at 88, legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter continues to offer wisdom to the world by solely reliving his history in jazz, with each story giving younger jazz musicians incentive to be as motivated and tenacious as Shorter was. Other members of the jazz community who continue to bless our world include saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson, bassists Ron Carter and Stanley Clarke, pianist Keith Jarrett, drummers Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette, and more. One artist who thankfully still releases music today is Joe Lovano, an incredible saxophonist who most famously worked with the Paul Motian trio, the John Scofield quartet, and the US Five group. With a particularly rich, sometimes abrasive tone, Lovano is versatile in many subgenres of jazz, ranging from avant-garde to fusion to cool jazz.
After signing with the ECM label, Lovano formed a trio with the illustrious modern jazz pianist Marilyn Crispell and the amazing drummer Carmen Castaldi, releasing a debut project entitled Trio Tapestry. This work is unlike anything the “tenor titan” has released, favoring spacious, simple ideas over powerfully complex tunes. Crispell’s beautiful touch and unbelievable harmonic knowledge paired with Castaldi’s sensitive embellishments on the kit create an ethereal bed for Lovano to explore over. “Sparkle Lights,” “Rare Beauty,” and “The Smiling Dog” are three examples of the respect these musicians have for each other and the compositions they so perfectly forged. As expected, Trio Tapestry was recognized as one of 2019’s most important jazz albums, and solidified the trio’s place in the competitive jazz scene. Many doubted their ability to top the other-wordly musical concept from Trio Tapestry; however, 2021’s next chapter, Garden of Expression, was influenced by a time of great sorrow and pain, shooting the lyricism, hushed assurance, and suspense to levels of near incomprehensibility.
While Trio Tapestry is an amazing showcase about what these three graceful musicians can present as a collective, the trio has certainly matured in sound on Garden of Expression. The compositions, while still simple and delicate, allow the group to get more expressive and complex with certain ideas. The second track “Night Creatures'' is a wonderful example of that. With a beautiful rubato intro from Marilyn Crispell, the tone is already set as one of pure elegance. Joe Lovano enters with a breathy, high-register “A” on the tenor saxophone, and Carmen Castaldi replicates that delicacy with some light, rhythmic sizzles on the ride cymbals. The tune also dabbles in modulation, as Lovano jumps around key centers and is supported by Crispell’s pristine piano voicings. Moreover, with no bass player, Crispell is able to modify the chord changes by incorporating slash chords, adding sharp 11’s and 13’s, and changing bass notes. This in turn allows Lovano to use different notes and scales, adding more harmonic contour to the composition. The following track “West of the Moon'' is one of the more collectively complex tunes across the album, and another example of how far the trio has come in their playing together. Castaldi performs superb brush and stick technique, elegantly switching between the two and giving the track different colors and textures. In a way, his playing is the glue that holds Lovano and Crispell together, as they magnificently and freely ascend through dense melodic lines. Beautiful piano runs and soft tenor saxophone lines are played with such passion and grace, eventually ending on a beautiful B major 13 chord.
Garden of Expression is definitely an expedition in avant-garde tendencies. The closing track “Zen Like” is a sparse, atonal meditation for the trio, and may come off as strange to those not keen to the expressions in “free jazz.” Carmen Castaldi begins the piece by playing a wide variety of world percussion instruments like hand pans, china cymbals, and taals. This gives way to Marilyn Crispell plucking the strings on the piano with her fingers, a common technique in avant-garde jazz music. What follows is a beautifully daunting solo piano portrait occasionally supported by cymbal scrapes or gong rolls. Joe Lovano enters on the soprano saxophone, taking the soundscape to a place that feels uncomfortably appealing. The way the group improvises off of each other’s ideas makes for an incredible listening experience, and a somehow overwhelming closing to something as gorgeous as Garden of Expression. On “Treasured Moments,” Crispell pedals an “E” on the piano, and then hits a note a half-step up, creating this crunchy tone that sets the cacophonous mood for the remainder of the track. Castaldi enters with some formidable tom drum work and sets up a spacious atmosphere for the soprano saxophone to float around in. Lovano’s delicate tone juxtaposes the dissonant tonality that the piano and drums aid in, and it is really a test of his sheer willpower to not overplay. His attention to detail lets him play only at points where the music truly needs it, which in turn makes “Treasured Moments” a well-balanced avant-garde jazz psalm, if that’s even a thing.
Together, Joe Lovano’s incredible tone and ears, Marilyn Crispell’s deep harmonic knowledge, and Carmen Castaldi’s impeccable drumming make Garden of Expression exactly what the album title depicts; a lush and bountiful soundscape full of exploration, passion, and character. There are near zero moments where it feels the trio isn’t jellying or not listening to one another, with each member being in tune to the musicians around them rather than solely their own playing. With life slowly approaching a state of normality yet again, albums like Garden of Expression are important relics we must cherish, reminding us the value that simplicity, dedication, and patience has in our day to day lives.