JOE LOVANO

"I'm All For You"

Blue Note

Joe Lovano is a big man with a big sound on the saxophone. But when he reins in his sound for his first all-ballad album, "I'm All for You," his energy doesn't dissipate; it compresses. Just because a tune is slower and softer, Lovano seems to be saying, that doesn't mean it can't have as much rhythmic vitality and harmonic invention as the most boisterous bop number. Whether it's Victor Young's "Stella by Starlight" or Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Mood," the patient pace and romantic mood gain a dramatic tension from the nervous counter rhythms and the melodic digressions.

Married to the gifted singer Judi Silvano, Lovano has devoted recent albums to the music of singers Frank Sinatra and Enrico Caruso. The saxophonist has acquired a singer's knack for toying with phrasing to claim ownership of a familiar song; just listen to the way he draws out a single note into a wistful yearning on Jimmy McHugh's "Don't Blame Me" and then wakes from his reverie with a bubbly fountain of notes. Just listen to the way he transforms John Coltrane's "Countdown" from a torrential attack to a crooner's plea, rising with excitement and then subsiding with doubt.

The 51-year-old Lovano has assembled the perfect team for this project. Few pianists are as economical or as lyrical as Hank Jones, even at 85. He never gets in the way, but he's continually nudging the leader into newer, braver paths and resembles a singer himself on his own solos. Bassist George Mraz, 58, lends as much to the harmonies as to the ever-shifting pulse. And 72-year-old drummer Paul Motian, who has worked with Lovano since 1981, establishes just enough of a swinging beat that he can comment on it with personalized phrasing of his own.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Friday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Joe Lovano, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8126. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

Joe Lovano often plays his sax with a singer's phrasing -- and always with rhythmic vitality.