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Joe Lovano: The Beauty of Expression

By Published: June 29, 2004
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.

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