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Joe Lovano: The Beauty of Expression

By Published: June 29, 2004

Even though a lot of my projects have had different focus, or focal points to them, the inner conception has always been about exploring what's happening there and trying to be free inside the music

There are few things as soulful, it seems, as the sound of the tenor saxophone when played by Joe Lovano. Call him the next great Italian tenor, if you will. He plays with full, robust sound and the instrument, in his hands, is liable to be sweet and ethereal at one moment, or volcanic and explosive the next. It depends on the context and the moment — like all great jazz.

And, as Lovano explains it, it depends on the people he is with and the musical setting in which he places himself.

"I like to play great songs and explore different ways to improvise with people," he says. "So even though a lot of my projects have had different focus, or focal points to them, the inner conception has always been about exploring what's happening there and trying to be free inside the music, you know? And not really play in one style or another. Just to be myself and let my improvisations take shape with the people that I play with. And I think that's the essence of jazz, really. It's not trying to play swing or bebop or Dixieland of free jazz or fusion. It's not those terms. It's about the feeling of who's playing and how you can be the most creative within that."

It's that attitude that has helped place Lovano among the great players of today. The accolades that have come his way — Musician of the Year awards, saxophone awards, album awards — are well deserved. This erudite and affable gentleman has made strong strides since his days growing up in Cleveland, and there are more worlds to conquer. In the unsteady world of art (unsteady because of world and cultural conditions), bet on Lovano. He's the real deal. He gets it.

Whether playing with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, kicking it with his nonet, blasting away in a trio with Dave Holland and the late legend Elvin Jones, or sitting in the bands of Woody Herman and Carla Bley, Lovano plays with distinction, personality and fire.

His latest Blue Note CD, I'm All for You , is an all-ballad affair he produced himself, with veterans Hank Jones on piano, George Mraz on bass and Paul Motian on drums. It shows a softer side of the saxman, but is another testament to the way he treats music: as an opportunity to make a beautiful statement within the moment. The CD is elegant and creative, as expected when four superb musicians have input.

"Well, it's a focus on some beautiful songs, you know? There's so many ideas and so many ways to explore those pieces of music. It's a really beautiful feeling. It covers a lot of ground because of the people that are playing," says Lovano. "Hank's contemporaries were Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron. Paul's contemporaries were Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles and Bill Evans. George Mraz's contemporaries are Herbie [Hancock], Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette. That group. And all my contemporaries are everyone else [laughter]. So it's like four different generations in jazz and there's a lot of magic that happened in the recording because of that."

"Like Someone in Love," "Monk's Mood," "Don't Blame Me," "Early Autumn" and others become succulent stories told in individual style. Lovano is ever expressive and inquisitive, Jones as stately as ever, a master; and Motian and Mraz are supportive in everything they offer.

"Every piece is about how you feel today and where you've been, how you could play it into tomorrow somehow. That's why playing with Hank is such a thrill. He's amazing. He's 85 years old. We can play a tune like 'Stella By Starlight' that he's played thousands of times. He plays it like he's learning it a new way every time. His intro. His voicings. Phrasing. Everything about it is very free and spontaneous and joyous. It's incredible to be around players like that," Lovano says.

Lovano appreciates musicians who can open their minds, and their hearts, and come up with ideas that are interesting, exploring. He appreciates old ways, but tries to see new paths of possibility. And not just new, but personal, ideas from his frame of mind. His soul. What's in there? How do I get it out? Lovano looks forward to answering those questions. Listeners look forward to hearing the answers.

"I think deep beautiful improvisers are really free in music. I think musicians who get hung up playing in one style or another are repeaters. They play the same solo on every tune in the same way. They're not really creative in the music. But throughout jazz, there's always been a handful of cats who haven't done that. They have inspired me. People like Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter, or Keith Jarrett or Herbie (Hancock). And Coltrane," he says.

"I'm just trying to be as honest as possible and be as creative as possible with the situation. Sometimes the situation calls for simplicity in a certain way, or a reflective moment. To really trust yourself and try to be within the moment creates some of the joyous music that we have out here."

The Cleveland native, 52, has been around great players all his life, coming from a musical family, the son of Tony "Big T" Lovano, a saxophonist who gigged around the city with various bands. His dad was his first big influence. So was his father's record collection. "Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane were probably my first real loves on record, where I really learned their solos and could sing along with the record and try to play some of that music as a teenager. And then hearing people play live was really great. My dad was playing in clubs that I was able to go to once I could drive. And I heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk live. I heard James Moody live, which was really influential... Sonny Stitt. Dizzy Gillespie. To be in a room with Gene Ammons and his sound was incredible," he says with a sense of awe.

"The first time I saw Milt Jackson play in front of me was incredible. I went to a concert with the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet. To hear Bags play and watch him and hear that tone, and the way he executed his ideas right in front of you on the vibes was like — wow! You know?" he says with an affectionate laugh. "I was influenced by all instrumentalists, as well as the saxophone. I've got to give credit to my dad for that, because he was always talking about that. 'You're going to play with drummers. You're going to play with a lot of piano players. Check them out. Dig what's happening.' That really opened up my conception of the whole sound of the music around me."

After high school, Lovano studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and began sitting in with top jazz bands when he retuned to Cleveland after two years. Before moving to New York City, he hooked up with bands led by organists Dr. Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. He moved to New York City in 1976 and hooked into the Woody Herman band, which was touring in celebration of its 40th anniversary.

"I was 23, and played on concerts with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and Stan Getz, Flip Phillips, Jimmy Guiffre. Those cats would play with us on occasion. At Carnegie Hall we did a live recording for RCA and they were all guest soloists. Those were all defining moments when I was young. To play 'Early Autumn'... I stood next to Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall playing my part with him playing lead on that 40th anniversary concert. That was a trip. To blend with him and all his phrasing and to not stand out like a little sore thumb up there [laughter] was a big moment."

Tenures with all kinds of influential musicians followed: Bob Brookmeyer, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Carla Bley and more.

"I think throughout your career you develop into different situations from where you've been. To play with Hank Jones these days and organize the summer tour with him and this quartet is a dream that I never dreamt that all of a sudden is happening."

To Lovano, it's a continuing journey that he is blessed to be on. He is confident, but there is no sway or arrogance in this man's gate. Whether he'll say it or not, he's helping lead the way. "If you execute your ideas, the world of jazz and the world of music is the most joyous, beautiful place. It's like a blessing. The future is up to your passion as a player. You can talk to people who aren't living the music as a player. Cats who write about it, or listeners or fans or whatever. You look at it different. As a player, and someone who's trying to be as honest as possible and creative as possible, with the people and the situation at hand, every time you play. It's a joyous place."

Those joyous places will be visited frequently this year, as the saxophonist tours with the Hank Jones trio in support of the new CD, including a stint in Europe. Lovano will also do some concerts with Frisell and Motian this year, the 20th anniversary of that trio. That unit has already recorded a CD on ECM records that will be released later this year.

He is also the artistic director for the Caramoor Jazz Festival July 31 and August 7 in Katonah, NY, this summer. He has helped set up a top-notch collection of talent that will feature a celebration of Hank Jones' 86th birthday the first Saturday, and the centennial celebration of the Count Basie band on the second Saturday.

"At this point, I'm really just into the moment and I really want to play this summer and to explore this music that we've just documented and have it be fresh each night," he says. "As far as projects, I have a few ideas, but I really don't want to get too far ahead of myself. It's about the people I'm playing with. And I'm always put into different situations with personalities together. Some stuff's coming together, but right now I really want to concentrate on the stuff I'm doing with Hank." Lovano is inspired by the people he plays with, like Hank Jones. It's a vital reason why he selects the people and the settings that he chooses. He takes that inspiration from the greats who came before him, many of whom he's had the privilege of playing with at one time or another. He doesn't want music that's stale, because when he looks at the pantheon of great musicians, "stale" is a term that's invisible. It's not allowed.

"Just recently we lost some of the masters that never lost that inspiration," he says with a sense of respect and admiration. "It's inspiring, man. Steve Lacy. Elvin Jones. John LaPorta, who hadn't been that active in a while, but in his early days he played with Charlie Parker. He was one of the pioneers in modern clarinet playing and exploring different ways of improvising on tonalities, open modes and things. He was a pioneer in a lot of free playing and things. Ray Charles. It's about the passion of the player that keeps the music alive.

"You can get caught up in a lot of marketing and caught up in a lot of commerciality and lose a lot of stuff, but just talking about Steve Lacy and Elvin Jones alone, they're going to inspire players for the next 10 generations to try and live up to that high standard. So there's new music all the time, if you keep yourself together. Or, you can rehash and just keep playing the same old repeated easy stuff that anybody could do.

"It's never been about that. Throughout every period of jazz, though, there has probably been a majority of musicians who are playing it that don't care about it. Then there's been a handful of cats that look forward and those are the cats that you listen to every day. Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis. Coltrane. Sonny (Rollins). Wayne (Shorter). Keith Jarrett. Don Cherry. I had a chance to play with a lot of people that have lived that truth. My last record, On This Day... at the Vanguard ' with my nonet. That tune, 'On This Day,' just like any other. It's a special dedication to all those cats, man. Billy Higgins. Don Cherry. People who, every time they sat behind their instrument, that was it: A day, just like any other, baby. Boom! And they played from the deepest part of their soul and wisdom. Those are the cats that inspired me about everything I'm doing at the moment, where I've been and where I want to go. I don't even know where I want to go, but where it will take me."

The consistent high quality of Lovano's recordings, as well as the high quality of his artistic vision, will make Lovano himself one of those musicians that others look to for inspiration. It has already.

Visit Joe Lovano on the web at .

Photo Credit
Dirk Stockmans

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