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Joe Lovano: Finding New Adventures

Photo credit: Merrick Winter

R.J. DeLuke By

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The essence of jazz. That’s what it's all about. Not to repeat yourself.
—Joe Lovano
The loss of gig and the accompanying income stream, caused by the insidious and evil coronavirus, has hurt musicians across all genres. It has separated them from friends and band mates, from projects and from going to special places—physically and artistically. Coping with it is the order of the day. It has created some dark moments and also shed light on the characteristic of resiliency that dwells in the human spirit.

Creativity, the hallmark of jazz, has kept many music makers afloat. Some are treading water and looking around for a ship on the horizon on which they can eventually climb aboard. Others have found comfort on their own islands, close to their families, where they continue to stoke the fire of their imaginations—studying, composing, taking stock and reflecting.

For saxophonist extraordinaire Joe Lovano, it has meant many things.

"There's definitely some moments where not being on tour and everything like usual is great, man," says Lovano, regarded by many as the premier saxophonist of his generation, from his suburban home north of New York City. "You're not into a routine of being on the road. For me, I've had a long career touring with all kinds of folks, from really the mid-'70s on. And this whole year has been a real deep experience of self-reflection and realizing a lot of things about communicating with people, friends and family."

These are not matter-of-fact, ho-hum statements. The inflection and expression is not that of, say, someone stating they went to the store for milk. As in everything Lovano does, the words are deep and heartfelt. He's an artist even when he's just talking. His speech is full of passion, like his music. And wisdom, like his music. There's an added dimension in the words emanating from this battle-tested veteran of the road.

He describes "getting next to your instrument in a deep way" during the pandemic. "Like you did when you were really young. It's bringing me into a whole study within the woodwind family of playing a lot of bass clarinet and different instruments. I have a collection of wood flutes and percussion instruments and stringed instruments from around the world from my travels. I'm really exploring, vibrating on tonalities on all these horns. And that's really been inspiring, man. And it's given way to trying to write and compose in a different light. Not just trying to write a tune or something. But really writing out ideas and working them out. And trying to experience ways of improvising, just in an unaccompanied way."

That's the introspection and self-evaluation of a true artist.

"You get really, really into your flow and feelings. A lot of times, with groups and different groups of players, different concepts of music, the momentum of the music is driven by the bassist or by the drummer or by a certain pattern, or whatever it is. And to break away from that is liberating," he says in earnest. "So I'm just getting deeper into that. There's a lot of moments I might not play at all, but I'm listening to music all day, all the time, you know. And digging back. Dig digging into your history. Also things that inspired you to do what you're doing. I've been going around and out of my record collection, just randomly going up to the shelf and picking an LP. Not looking for something, just picking and putting it on a turntable. And man, I've been picking some LPs I hadn't listened to in years. Different things. Yusef Lateef, you know? Booker Little. Paul Bley.

"The other day I pulled the record, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell did, Red and Black in Willisau (Black Saint, 1985). It brought me back to the hearing them cats together. You know, and then leading to 1989 when I started to play with Blackwell. That's been really inspiring, man. So I've been trying to really make this time at home have some different kind of moments that sustain. Not just putting a record on and listening to it once. But keeping an eye on your turntable and listening to it for days. That's been something."

There's also been online streaming, including musical interplay with his wife, singer Judi Silvano, and teaching to keep Lovano active and excited. And he has two new releases in 2021, one on ECM records with his Trio Tapestry group, Garden of Expression and the other with the Sound Prints band he has had with trumpeter Dave Douglas for years now, titled Other Worlds (Greenleaf Music). The albums are somewhat disparate, the trio music being more calm and melodic, and Sound Prints typically more boisterous, capable of moving in abstract directions if the quintet is so inclined, bearing a more muscular sound with an underlying swing that isn't obvious.

"It's nice to have a few things come out like that man. So creative and different ways of playing together," says Lovano. "It's the essence of jazz. That's what it's all about. Not to repeat yourself. To be in creative, flowing situations with people you have relationships with."

Sound Prints formed in 2012 after the group played a concert on the same bill as Wayne Shorter. In its formative period, the idea was to pay tribute to the icon. The seed came from Lovano and Douglas being with the SF Jazz Collective, a collective of outstanding jazz musicians, many of whom are leaders in their own right. They do an annual tour, each year selecting an important artist and playing their music. Each member arranges a tune by that artist and also pens an original composition as a tribute with the subject in mind. Lovano and Douglas were in the ensemble in 2008 when the music of Shorter was performed.

"So we wrote our own arrangements and our own compositions inspired by Wayne, and that kind of was a little springboard for Dave and I to carry on and try to really do that in a more intimate way with each other," Lovano says.

The group performed Shorter's music at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2013. It's first release was Scandal and the band has continued touring off and on ever since. Last year, in January, not long before the pandemic caused global shutdowns, Sound Prints did a week of gigs at Village Vanguard in New York City. As luck would have it, the recording took place the following week, "which was perfect," says the saxophonist. "Both Dave and I wrote all the music leading up to that week at the Vanguard, and then played for a week and put it all together. I'm really proud of that recording man and the way the music unfolded."

The music has a special groove created by musicians who have a deep familiarity. As such, they can experiment with the pulse. Take liberties, while remaining true to the composition. Layers might appear complex, but it has it's own swing. "Manitou" displays a softer side, sax and trumpet giving off a relaxed feel, then intertwining their melodic ideas to create a great duet conversation. Naturally, the individual solos are remarkable throughout. "The Flight" is more rollicking, but the deft interplay remains, taking the listener down a special path. The focus idea is for Lovano and Douglas to compose for the group "and somehow put a repertoire together that compliments each other's music as a quintet" with pianist Lawrence Fields, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Joey Baron on drums, says Lovano.

His relationship with Douglas and Barron goes back to their time at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "We have a real beautiful communication, the three of us, that goes back through a lot of music. We've explored a lot of ways of playing together and different ideas. So it's really about the collective flow of ideas," Lovano says. "And Linda is a virtuoso musician that plays with such a concept of exploring melody, and the harmonic rhythm and the bass part. She maneuvers through all kinds of different ways of playing"

Fields was a student of Lovano's when the saxophonist started teaching at Berklee. "Right from the beginning, Lawrence had an idea about how to play and how to approach different kinds of music. Once he came to New York, we started doing stuff together. Different formations. He was the perfect cat to be a part of this band from the beginning. So the music has really evolved from us playing together and touring and having these opportunities to document the music."

The key to the vitality of the band, as Lovano tells it, is that "everybody has complete freedom to play with interpretation within the written music and contribute, initiate things. Not to just repeat your part, but to make your part have some meaning and purpose. My pieces, I tried to write a score for each one instead of just writing a tune for this recording. 'Space Exploration' and 'Shooting Stars,' 'The Flight' and 'Sky Miles' and 'Midnight March,' those pieces were like scores that we were just following and curing each other melodically and rhythmically, We might say something that would cue the next section. So my pieces came together for this session right from two or three months prior to the Vanguard gig... I was trying to really write within an idea about how to play together and to create some kind of ways of playing that open the door to not just running around your horn and playing over vamps and stuff."

"Within some of my pieces, it's scored out where different trios emerge. I play trio with Linda and Joey. There's a trio section with Dave and Lawrence without Linda. So within some of the scored orchestration, there's moments that open up into different formations within the quintet." Many of the compositions, Lovano explains, were recorded in a single take.

Post production was also a pleasure for Lovano. "The way Dave and I worked together, just in the sequencing... I was listening to it and I was really happy with the way that all played out. Because we didn't record in that order. My pieces, 'The Other Worlds' was a suite, which had 'Space Exploration' and 'Shooting Stars' and 'The Flight.' We recorded that all as a suite. In that sequence. But then, during the gig, we were separating things and experimenting with different orders every night. Because at the Vanguard you played two sets a night. We had enough music not to repeat each set. We played different sets, but we put things in different orders, you know, during the gig. So then, in the post production, we really fooled around with that. And I think we came up with a beautiful sequence."

Garden of Expression with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi takes on a different personality. The music explores, but in a more seductive way. Nonetheless, it does not take a back seat in terms of spontaneity and exploration.

Says Lovano, "You might say (Garden of Expression) was different, but in a way it was all one. It's about listening to each other and shaping the inner music within the music. And playing with a sense of creativity within. And not just trying to repeat a rehearsal or the way it looks on paper."

He says Crispell "is one of the most poetic, beautiful musicians in the music." They've been friends since the 1980s when Crispell was playing with Anthony Braxton. Braxton was doing a recording for Black Saint, produced by Giovanni Bonandrini. Lovano was also planning a Black Saint session and went to the studio to discuss it with Bonandrini. He listened to and met Crispell there. Lovano had a long history playing with drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Bill Frisell and Crispell also had a history with Motian, but with Mark Elias on bass. "I went and sat in with them once at the Vanguard. Then we played a few gigs, where we played Marilyn's music and Paul's music. And that was kind of the first time we really played together like that."

He put Trio Tapestry together in 2017 with longtime friend Castaldi—like Lovano, a Cleveland native—on drums.

"He's one of my closest friends from when we were teenagers together. We started to play and explore, improvising and playing in this open, free flowing manner from that time, you know. And then when I came to New York in the mid-'70s, Carmen got a gig and went out west. And he ended up living in Vegas and LA for the next 20 years or something. He came back east and the early 2000s."

Playing in a trio with no bass had beginnings with the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio. Lovano learned how to fit in with those wonderfully creative musicians when he wasn't soloing. "But also as a saxophonist, I'm the preacher also. I'm in the front line. But it gave me a real sense of how to accompany and how to be within the sound of the ensemble. And be in that bass position where I could contribute not only as a soloist and the lead voice, but within the group. Within what the drums are doing and within, in that case, was what Bill was doing. So that gave me the confidence to try to put a trio together with no bass, and to write some music that had some openness to it, where I could explore that area within the triangle of three folks. The tapestry of it all."

Listening to the Garden of Expression recording, "it's almost like a ballads record. But with new compositions. Tunes I wrote for the session. But the way it unfolded, we had a oneness about the way we had captured a mood throughout the day of recording."

It was recorded in Lugano, Switzerland. And the night before, the trio played a 90-minute set in a recital hall before an audience of several hundred people. "We really got into these tunes with a different kind of attitude and energy. And each composition has a lot of moments within to explore and to shape.' The next day, they set up in the same space, without amplification, and recorded, under the watchful eye of renowned ECM producer Manfred Eicher.

"Manfred's focus is to make an LP," explains Lovano. "He doesn't want 90 minutes of music to choose from. He wants you to make a focused 45 minutes, 40 minutes, maybe 50 at the most. So that focus and idea is established. So then once we started to play and shape each composition, in that form and idea, it had a different energy and a different focus and idea within each piece. And I tried to write compositions that were like song forms and structures. They also were pretty much one takes. There's only a few things we might have played twice. The music unfolded as a oneness in the sound. And in the approach. And I think that makes that session really special and stand out as a different kind of session from most of my records."

Sound Prints recorded in a studio with each rhythm section player in their own booth. With the trio record, there were no headphones used and "the sound in the room was exactly how it sounds on the recording. And I think that's the magic. Also in Manfred's approach through the years, he's always gone for more of a recital hall sound, or a concert hall sound. In post production, Manfred goes for this more recital hall feeling in the way it's mixed and mastered. He's really a master at that. And also sequencing and everything too.

Lovano adds, "Just beautiful. It's great to work with a producer that is so deep and has such a deep passion about that. Lot of trust."

As more musicians come out with new recordings, they are still frustrated by not being able to bring the music to audiences in clubs and concert halls. Lovano had gigs scheduled for both his trio and Sound Prints groups and has hopes they can continue to some extent this year. He is scheduled to play at the Newport Jazz Festival with Trio Tapestry on August. 1st. George Wein has announced the event will take place. Details about new rules and how it will be regulated are still pending.

"Everything's still up in the air. Sound Prints had a weekend May at the Jazz Standard, looking toward this release," Lovano says. More realistically, for full touring, "probably, we're looking into the spring and summer of 2022... I'm not sure if they're going to happen in Europe in the fall, but I'm feeling kind of skeptical about that, you know, doing one-nighters and touring the way we do in Europe. I think it's a little early right now to try to really project that. But people are optimistic and we'll see how it plays out."

Lovano has done some live streaming shows with people like Ben Street, Andrew Cyrille, Frisell and Tyshawn Sorey.

"That's been something really positive and good throughout this pandemic. I was doing some of these live stream moments, you know. I had a chance to do one from the Blue Note, and one also from Birdland. Two from the Vanguard. And my wife and I have been doing some live streams as a duo, right here at our pad, our studio. And that's been really great. We did that for the Panama festival. to raise funds for the Danilo Pérez Foundation. I had someone come and film us. Not just a Zoom with our computer, but really do it—a couple cameras and a nice sound. And Judy and I put a set of music together. Original compositions and in different formations as a duo.

"I ended up playing tenor and bass, clarinet, C melody, mezzo soprano, regular soprano, percussion, and drums. And Judy vocalized and played alto recorder and percussion, and balafon and she painted a painting while we played. Improvised the painting. So we put a full set together and filmed it in the sequence, like a scored sequence of events. That's been really great to create some music together in a duet form, but with all these different sounds and colors, and feelings. And then with her painting too. That added a whole other element to it. There was some on unaccompanied saxophone, where she painted. And I was checking her out, and she's listening and reacting to things I'm playing. It took some beautiful shapes. So this whole live stream thing, I think, for a lot of artists has been really good. Good focus and a way to reach some folks and get real intimate and do some music that has a purpose."

Teaching has involved one-on-one sessions, as well as larger groups. Lovano is also involved in Berklee's Global Jazz Institute with pianist/composer Perez.

"These students are all over the planet. I have students from Korea and Australia, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, you know, that haven't been in Boston. Hopefully in the fall, they're planning to get back to more on-site meetings. We'll see if that really happens. But that's been really educational for all of us. Having an intimacy with someone like this and talking about all these issues, man. A lot of these young students, they haven't had any experience traveling on the road or living the life. They're all really learning how to play. A lot of them are amazing virtuoso musicians to be in this program that we're we're doing. And they're doing remote recording together. They're playing with a small ensemble of folks they never even met yet in person and played with in a room. But they're putting music together that is amazing. And we're working on it together. And that's been something really incredible.

"I could never do that. But I can address studio playing and studio work and give them ideas about the process of laying tracks and doing all that. I've done all that, but in the studio with folks. They're doing it—one is in Seoul, the other one is in Barcelona and never met. And there's a process about doing that. And that's been amazing. Also the way Danilo (Perez) is handling organizing and putting these groups together. All that is really inspiring."

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