Catching Up With Joe Lovano


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At an early age I was just enthralled in the music and the spirit and the different ways cats play and I was never afraid to play with people.
—Joe Lovano
Cleveland born saxophonist Joe Lovano consistently tops the polls and is a Grammy winner who has interpreted Sinatra and Caruso and worked within both the mainstream and avant-garde. He recently became artistic director of New York's Caramoor Festival and is the Gary Burton Chair of Jazz Performance at Berklee College of Music. He maintains a busy international touring schedule that showcases his myriad projects and group formats.

All About Jazz: I'm looking at your schedule for the next couple of months. You are playing all over the world. How do you keep going?

Joe Lovano: Well, I first went on the road in 1973-74. When you're on an international touring schedule you're always on the road playing gigs. I spent a lot of years in the 70's touring with Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff and the Woody Herman Band. With Lonnie we played some gigs, with McDuff we were on tour for maybe 6-8 weeks. I joined Woody's band in August of '76 and left in January '79. We were on the road, one-nighters, the whole time. I had a week off in the summer and a week off at Christmas each year. That was it (Laughing). I was 23 at the time. So with those kind of roots the stuff I am doing now is nothing. (Laughing).

AAJ: Tell me a little about that Brubeck CD and the 'Joe Lovano Tango'?

JL: It was quite an honor, to get that call, realizing that Brubeck had heard of me and wanted me. A bunch of cats were on it. Gerry Mulligan, I think it was his last date. Gerry and George Shearing played a beautiful duet. Brubeck wrote a tune for each of us. When I showed up, he gave me the music, and it was the 'Joe Lovano Tango' (laughing) that he had just wrote by saying my name: 'JOE LO-va-NO tan-GO'; he just recited my name and started writing. It turned out to be very hip, real modal. He was amazing, so animated and excited when we listened to playbacks. He played with such a beautiful energy.

AAJ: The multigenerational nature of jazz that you talk about. Can you expand on that?

JL: I've been playing in this multigenerational scene since I was a kid. My dad was a happening saxophonist around Cleveland. My goal, when I was a teenager, was to play with him and the cats he was playing with, and have them dig me. It's amazing to live in this jazz community right now with the multigenerational thing and the multicultural exchange that has happened over the last 20-25 years. I've done a lot of stuff in France, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries and Brazil. When you live in this kind of world it fuels everything you do.

AAJ: Was the Caruso Project driven by a wish to get back to your 'ethnic roots'?

JL: It's not 'back' to the roots, it's with you every second you breathe. It just comes out in your music. If you're a creative improviser and in tune with who you are and what's going on, those things kind of happen. You know what Charlie Parker said; 'You have to live it to have it come out of your horn', that's really true. If you live in someone else's shoes or follow someone else's shadow, you're only playing your instrument like a machine. To try to be expressive and be real with what's going on out here, those things just kind of come out.

The Caruso project was a beautiful study. Not only to feel the roots of my grandparents and their journey to the States but to realize that Caruso lived in NY almost 20 years of his life and had such an amazing focus and purity in his delivery of sound. Caruso's majesticness carried through in Sidney Bechet's playing, Louis Armstrong; people that were hearing him in that early period. Caruso was one of the only cats recording. He was an amazing influence.

AAJ: One of the guys that I think had that sensibility was Jim Pepper. Did you play with Pepper?

JL: Yeah, a lot with Paul (Motian). We recorded together and toured Europe many times. Pepper was a real soulful cat and had a beautiful spirit. He was a free spirit. He was in one of the first groups that played what later became fusion. But his sound and his whole attitude were free and open, very vocal.

AAJ: How do you see yourself as the new Artistic Director for the Caramoor Festival?

JL: I hope to have an open door policy and draw some people and present some new music. This year I didn't do the programming, but I'd like to include some students and an ensemble that could be put together with young folks that had never played together before. It would be live auditions before the concert for me and some cats in my band to put together a group. Something that broadens the whole thing.

AAJ: Can you tell me about Joe Lovano Birth of the Cool ?

JL: I had a commission last year from the Monterey Jazz Festival. Gunther Schuller and I collaborated on this idea. Gunther wrote 3 excerpts from Birth of the Cool for me; 'Moon Dreams', 'Boplicity' and 'Move'. He wrote them as re-orchestrations for me and an ensemble. But then '911' happened and we never performed the piece. I'm planing to record and play it, but not until next Spring.

AAJ: You mention Gunther Schuller , I know you also play with Ed Schuller, and with George on Rush Hour. Had you and George played together before Rush Hour ?

JL: We played in Boston together and I played on one recording with George and his band, and a couple of crazy gigs with Gunther. Gunther wrote a piece, 'Journey into Jazz', for Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis and Benny Golson. Leonard Bernstein recited the story with orchestra and a quintet. One of the first times I played with George, was with the Wheeling West Virginia Symphony, and we played 'Journey into Jazz', that was quite a trip. So I've known him for quite sometime. He's a good writer too.

AAJ: I know you played with Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. Other musicians speak as reverently about Groove Holmes. How is it possible for young musicians to do that today?

JL: I also played with Groove. I sat in with him. He was amazing. I was in Detroit and I was playing with Lonnie. Groove was playing at Bakers Keyboard Lounge and we went there. I loved Groove Holmes. I had all kinds of records, he played 'Misty' and all those things. Afterwards he said, 'man if you ever need a gig, call me.' (laughing) It was funny because I was about to join Lonnie's band, it was a funny little moment there. I was a kid, 20 years old. It was a thrill to get up on that bandstand and play something. When I first moved to NY I sat in with Chet Baker at a club called Strykers up on 86th St. It just so happened that the cat playing saxophone with him couldn't do the next weekend and Chet offered me the gig. So I ended up playing a couple of Fridays and Saturdays. Harold Danko was on piano. Chet just started playing some tunes, he didn't call them out or anything you didn't know what you were going to play next.

The young cats today, if they have an attitude to do that, they could sit in with anybody. It's your attitude, you could go ask Lou Donaldson, 'Could I sit in and play a tune man?' if you're serious, he'll look at you and say: 'Oh, yeah OK.' When I was a kid, and coming up. I sat in with Sonny Stitt, I was scared to death. He actually asked me if I wanted to play (laughs) 'cause I had my horn when I went to the club.

AAJ: The 'Gary Burton Chair at Berklee' With all the things you're doing, when are you going to have time to sit in that chair?

JL: (Laughing) Yeah, 'cause I don't play sitting down anymore. It's quite an honor, Berklee's first endowed chair. Gary called and offered it to me. I have an open situation and I create my own classes. I put together 2 different ensembles. Straight ahead, where we play famous music; Monk, Bird, Dizzy, Coltrane. Whatever we want to play, whatever I bring in, and whatever the young cats know. My other is new music, I call it my 21st century ensemble. I want them to bring in original tunes and do spontaneous orchestrations.

AAJ: Would you think of featuring some of that at Caramoor?

JL: That could happen. Definitely. I would like to present some stuff from Berklee there. We have to see how that all works out. It's great to be involved with so many great young players.

AAJ: The new CD on Blue Note: On this Day'At The Vanguard , what led to recording the nonet live?

JL: I have been recording and playing a lot with the nonet, it has been developing a personality as an ensemble and the repertoire has been growing. Everybody has their own personality and sound. The way I'm trying to lead this band is pretty open and to let everybody contribute who they are as players. It's just amazing to play night after night with that rhythm section. Things came together for this recording, I wrote some things. Everything was really fresh; we were learning the pieces and how we could expand night after night.

AAJ: You seem to always play with the best musicians, how do you make that happen?

JL: The last few months have been amazing with all of the collaborations I've been doing. Playing with Scofield, Dave Holland, Hank Jones. There are a lot of cosmic things that happen. I'm just really fortunate to have developed through the years with that willingness to be involved with a lot of different settings and situations. At an early age I was just enthralled in the music and the spirit and the different ways cats play and I was never afraid to play with people.

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