Jazz: Poor Elvis, he never stood a chance

IN THE old days - if you believe the stories - a couple of sharp- shooting tenor saxophonists like Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano might have met up after the gig, at a small late-night venue, to pit improvisation against improvisation in a heated duel for saxophone supremacy. But people have a lot more sense these days. Why bother, when you're great and can make it back to the hotel in time for a beer and the late-night showing of The Jerry Springer Show?

This was a double bill made in jazz heaven. Joe Lovano is the hefty and robust figure between the gravelly, angular tenor on all those lovely John Scofield records. As a band leader, he set London's Ronnie Scott's club alight earlier in the year with a residency that few present will forget. Joshua Redman - son of Sixties Free Jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman - was destined to become a jazz star. Add the name to a lithe, sinewy tone, doe-eyed good looks and a penchant for bluesy, accessible note-picking and you get as close as this minority music can to an A&R wet room.

Lovano was on first. It's a rare musical presence that can give the cavernous Barbican Hall such an electric atmosphere, but from the very first, complicated headlong tumble of notes, it was clear that Lovano's repertoire is built upon granite foundations.

His hour-long set was on a constant knife-edge of drama -- drummer Idris Muhamed's tricky stop-start pulse providing a nervy backdrop to Lovano's wired style. There was a gorgeous ballad (in which Lovano seemed to nod to swing roots - Al Cohn and Zoot Sims), and some intense work on the unusual alto clarinet. But Lovano was all about spontaneity and the joys of improvisation, and he could have kept us transfixed all night.

Not even Elvis Presley, live at the Barbican with news from Lord Lucan and Princess Diana, could have followed Lovano with ease. Joshua Redman made a surprisingly game attempt, relying less on his usual soulfulness and grace, and working up the Barbican audience with circular breathing, a cathedral reverb, and throwing in the odd brutal drum solo to make the auditorium's monkey contingent scream.

It was a slick and well rehearsed quartet, reworking standards (a Joni Mitchell tune and "Love for Sale", split cleverly into seven and six time). Pianist Aaron Goldberg played a heroic solo on "Eleanor Rigby", after Redman had picked up a soprano sax and turned the performance into something consciously reminiscent of the Coltrane Quartet. All exciting enough, but it will be Lovano who will be best remembered in the morning.