The CD mixes every strain of Sagov’s experience. There are standards like the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green,” and Evans’s “Nardis”; there are lesser-played jazz pieces like Gary McFarland’s “Gary’s Waltz.” Sagov’s arrangements reconfigure the familiar tunes — the melodies of “Blue in Green” and “Nardis” are merely passing shadows. You can hear the music of the South African townships in “Stanley’s Kwela,” his Jewish background in Middle Eastern–tinged pieces like “Chord Too Bad” and the traditional “Avinu Malkkkeinu.” (His comment on the region’s “fratricidal conflict: the music from both sides is the same!”)
The playing from Strickland, Moses, and veteran trumpeter Mike Peipman is, as you might expect, stellar, with strong support from electric-bassist Tommy Lockett and percussionist Sean Mannion. On Sagov’s idiosyncratic “Blooz for Another Time,” Strickland, who can blow with Coltrane-like complexity and ferocity, settles into a Ben Websterish fat-toned melody before doubling the time on top of Sagov’s chords. Meanwhile, Sagov’s writing and playing surprises everywhere. He stretches out the melody in his introduction to “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” exposing inner voicings, wringing the song for emotion without sentimentality. His “Regular-Irregular” recalls one of the airy forms from the Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter book, with its rising horn fanfare, 12-tone-row middle section, and use of space. Sagov’s solo here takes one unpredictable turn after another, sticking with the form but mixing up odd, varied patterns, quizzical and joyful.
Sagov says that even NEC couldn’t get him to “unlearn” the bad habits of his early self-training. “I’m a jazz musician who learned how to play piano on the street. I never learned to play scales properly, I just scrabbled around in my own way.” That rough technique might account for some of his individuality. “I don’t consider myself a pianist in the way Keith Jarrett or Jacky Terrasson is. They’re consummate players, well schooled. So I think of myself more as a composer who happens to use the piano as a means of expression.”
Although he hasn’t toured, Sagov has played regularly over the years in Boston and New York. The new CD (he released one with some of the same musicians in 2006, and another has just been completed) represents a special bond with long-time friends and colleagues. “This is how it used to feel when I started playing in South Africa — music that combined head and heart and had rigor and sexiness to it, that’s got formal elements. But what makes it come alive in the moment of playing is the immediacy of feeling other people being in the game with you.”
At face value, you’d expect Saxophone Summit to be a showcase for the three star soloists — David Liebman, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane. And in some aspects of their first set at the Regattabar back on September 24, it was just that. Each of the three horn players got plenty of solo time. But in the performance — as on their two CDs — they proved themselves a real working band, the music existing as a totality of expression and not just as an arrangement for solos with backdrops.