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Our critics' picks in new releases



This pair of contrasting discs make complementary bookends. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and his light-footed, little-big band vaguely recall the most famous nine-piece group of 'em all, the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool unit, an ensemble that recorded less than an hour of spellbinding jazz a half-century ago. Of course, that music has aged ever so gracefully. And so has Lee Konitz, who was once upon a time the alto saxophonist in Davis' legendary band.

Konitz's solos circa 1949 sounded a lot like the way he plays on Sound of Surprise, a breezy date by an all-star quintet. As always, the leader's notes are comprised of equal parts music and air, with tone utterly stripped of vibrato. Even at quick tempos, he never rushes. Instead, he muses. Imagine a saxophone with brains--thinking aloud, contemplating the shape of a cloud, perhaps. That's Konitz: cerebral yet swinging.

While Surprise contains an all-Konitz program, Lovano's trip down memory lane visits nine covers that recall the bustling heyday of NYC's Swing Street. Lovano lifts five vintage tunes from the late Tadd Dameron, a bebop-styled composer emeritus. Their honey-rich harmonies and sugary melodies comprise the heart and soul of 52nd Street Themes. Arranged by Lovano and his mentor, Willie "Face" Smith, the CD's juggernaut band wastes not a note and vibrates with finger-poppin' vitality.

Meanwhile, behind the wheel of this rhythmic Cadillac rides the leader's sprawling saxophone, a luxurious sound situated somewhere between jazz's past and future. Lovano, an innovator at heart, is simply too restless to resist blowing the occasional blast of fresh air. And that's when this rousing record swings the most.

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