Though most often associated with his swinging post-bop albums for Blue Note, saxophonist Joe Lovano is no stranger to the ECM label. He first recorded with producer Manfred Eicher's storied German institution in 1981 for drummer Paul Motian's album Psalm, playing alongside bassist Ed Schuller and guitarist Bill Frisell. Since then he has made several appearances on the label, including further hits with Motian (who died in 2011), as well as pianist Steve Kuhn and guitarist John Abercrombie. With 2019's deeply atmospheric Trio Tapestry, Lovano takes his relationship with ECM to the next logical and long-awaited plateau: by leading his first session for the label. Joining him are longtime associates in pianist Marilyn Crispell and fellow Cleveland native/drummer Carmen Castaldi. Lovano first played with Crispell in 2006 in a group that included Motian. He's known Castaldi since he was a teenager, and also as a student at Boston's Berklee School of Music, where they both studied. Having started her career in the '70s playing free jazz, Crispell has evolved into a deeply nuanced and harmonically engaging performer whose style often works as a bridge between the avant-garde and more accessible playing. This in-between bridge is what Lovano's trio explores on a set of original compositions that work more as impressionistic sound explorations than traditional, standards-based improvisations. Silence plays a huge role in the trio's sound. "One Time In" opens with a skittering clang of cymbals and a gong, and then there's nothing until Lovano's mournful, bird-like saxophone breaks through the metallic glow. Similarly, "Sparkle Lights" begins as a piano/sax duo with Lovano and Crispell playing a hushed, diminished-sounding phrase that gives way to emptiness before the trio delicately push back against the silence with icy harmonic swells. Elsewhere, they take a more tangible approach, offering up the melancholy balladry of "Seeds of Change," and growl through the atonal Ornette Coleman-ism of "The Smiling Dog." Primarily however, tracks like the evocative "Mystic" (which sounds like it was recorded in a large church, or empty gorge), and the aptly titled "Gong Episode," remain enigmatic, as if Lovano and his bandmates are less interested in a playing music, than in playing the space around them.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar