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Joe Lovano: Inimitable Streams of Expression


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My recordings reflect who I am, where I've been. They also project where I want to go. I think jazz is about your personal experiences, and the way they come out in your personal story. It has to be as wide as your scope about life and music and people.
Penned as "one of the greatest musicians in jazz history," saxophonist Joe Lovano has successfully created a unique voice within the jazz tradition and has contributed significantly to the continuance and development of the idiom.

In just over a quarter of a century he has created an expansive body of work that has covered a broad spectrum of styles. This includes swing, bebop, hard-bop, post-bop, the avant-garde and interpretations of the music of Frank Sinatra and Enrico Caruso. He has explored an array of group settings, including duo with drums, the coveted trio with drums and bass, numerous quartets, a two-drummer quintet, nonets and a full symphony orchestra. Add to this his unique exploration of unconventional woodwinds, including the alto clarinet, wood flute, and the aulochrome (the first polyphonic saxophone invented specifically for him), it becomes readily apparent that his body of work is unique and multidimensional.

Not only has Lovano created a distinctive voice within the tradition, he has created a voice that is arguably inimitable due his extremely wide scope of influences and his constant endeavor to play spontaneously both in practice and performance.

All About Jazz: Can you talk about growing up under the tutelage of your father, saxophonist Tony Lovano?

Joe Lovano: My dad was a real hot player, like an Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons style of player. He heard Lester Young live, heard Charlie Parker live, and he had a wispy thing about his playing also that came from Lester. But he liked to play "Flying Home," those kind of tunes and things, also. He was a real bebopper. My dad was born in 1925 and John Coltrane and Miles Davis were born in 1926. So he grew up in that same swing, modern jazz, free jazz world. In the early 50's my dad played a jam session with Coltrane in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing in a band with Guy Cross. It was kind of a blues band, and they were in Cleveland for a while, maybe months. So my dad met Coltrane, played a jam session with him. You know, with local cats and all that.

From that time on, he loved Coltrane and had all his records. Growing up, I heard the whole spectrum of Coltrane's career, in a way. He passed away in 1967 and I was born in 1952, so when I was a teenager, my dad had Kulu Se Mama (Impulse!, 1965), and Meditations (Impulse!, 1965) as well as the Prestige Records—Soultrane (1958), Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960), and all those things. Later, when I went to Berklee, I bought a Coltrane transcription book, gave it to my dad for Christmas. When I came home the next time he was playing "Locomotion," and all these solos, he was practicing all these things. I gave him this book, and before I knew it he was playing all those transcriptions from the Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957) record. Because he knew the record, but didn't really play in that kind of notey way. But I gave him all this stuff to practice, and he was playing the heck out of all of it. Which was really far out because I hadn't even really studied it like that—especially that "Locomotion" solo.

AAJ: You often suggest to saxophone players that they should try to emulate other instrumentalists such as trumpet players or drummers. I was wondering whom the main instrumentalists are that you've studied, apart from saxophone players.

JL: Well, a lot of trumpet players. Miles, for sure, was—and still is—a major influence as far as melody. How he could stretch out. He could make four choruses sound like one time through the melody. Miles did some crazy stuff where he stretched out melodies over longer periods, rather than playing the melody by rote, real quick one time through. He would take three, four choruses, and play the melody once, somehow. I don't know. Ben Webster and Lester Young also played with that kind of—I don't know how to put it—almost like a timeless feeling. That there was time happening, but just the way he would say the melody, it would be like speaking, you know? And letting the harmonies move under him, as he was playing over it. Instead of just moving your melodies with the harmonies. Letting the harmonies move, and playing through it a certain way.

That combination, with actually shaping every chord, puts you in a different perspective all the time. And it's also the way you feel the beat. You know to play off a big beat, even though the quarter note is moving four beats to a bar, or however many. The way you're feeling it, you could feel one beat that carries you through two bars, or four bars. Or the way you feel the polyrhythms that come off the big beat. In whatever tempo you're playing, this gives you a foundation to feel the melodies the way you develop it. You're playing really by feel more than metric counting.

I've played drums since I was really young also. So, I've developed within a real poly- rhythmic world on the saxophone, because of playing a lot of drums too. I have to credit that because through the years I've been able to play with so many different drummers, in my career, and playing with cats like Andrew Cyrille, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell and all these cats. Everyone has their own feeling, and the way they play with the spaces—melodically. You really realize that the real great drummers are playing melodically. They're not just playing the drums, they're not just playing rhythm, they're feeling all these things, but they're playing in a polyrhythmic world that a lot of horn players don't.

I heard a great interview with Joe Zawinul, who was talking about Ben Webster and how he could play on tunes that were fast tempi, but not have to play fast. He said that Ben was a master at rhythm. That he was one of the few cats that could play on a really fast tempo and not just fly around the horn. He would say something in the beat that was happening around him. When you listen to Ben, he had a lot of personalities from the way he played on bright tempos and hot type tunes. The way he played on the blues, the way he played ballads. His personality took different shapes with the different tempos and moods of the tunes. Ben Webster is another amazing influence in that way.

AAJ: Talking about drummers, I read an interview where you said that Paul Motian once told you that you were playing behind the beat, because you weren't implying the changes before they arrived.

JL: Well that has to do with feeling the polyrhythms and anticipation, and not waiting for the harmonic rhythm to fall where it looks on the paper.

AAJ: So did Motian really influence you with his playing?

JL: With his playing, but he told me one time I was just behind the beat, and I was waiting for the harmony and then playing off the harmony. And he told me that, and right about that time was a big transition for me and I guess it was round 1980- '81. I was playing in a lot of different bands, doing a bunch of different things. I had been in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, I was experiencing a lot of different ways of improvising, and I sat in with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard with Mark Johnson and Joe La Barbera, and that was one of the first times I felt I was behind the chords.

Because Bill was comping, we played "Stella by Starlight," and he was ahead of me on every chord. He comped over the bar line, into the next phrase. And that was one of the first times I really felt, not of- center, but just not with it. At that period, I was still trying to play the saxophone or something, I'm not sure. It was at the beginning of starting to develop an approach about harmonic rhythm, and anticipating the changes, and using the chord I was in to go to the next chord, rather than play on the chord I was in. And playing with Paul and exploring the different ways of improvising through harmonies but in a free way, really opened up a lot of ideas.

AAJ: You explored free playing with pianist Kenny Werner when you were at Berklee. Can you tell me a little more about this and how it has influenced your voice today?

JL: Well you know when we first met we were way into all kinds of ways of improvising together. And playing standard songs and trying to play "famous" songs, of course, that's how I learnt how to play my horn. Playing with other cats. Up in Boston and back in Cleveland also, I was part of a group of people that played and improvised really freely, and tried to create the music spontaneously. We were influenced by Ornette Coleman's music and the later period Coltrane. And also hearing Keith Jarrett, his quartet with Dewey Redman, and Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian.

So, I heard them in Boston in 1972, and I just wanted to figure out how to play with those cats. Because they were playing... they had all the roots and all the depth of everything I'd ever heard, plus they were playing in other ways, you know, communicating in another kind of way. But anyway, Kenny and I, and [saxophonist] Billy Drewes and a handful of us would play for hours and hours and hours and just improvise pieces of music. And not just crazy, free playing that was just energy. It was something different, you know. It was a certain period in free jazz where the approach was really to play with the same energy. We were coming at it from a more contemporary classical approach with a jazz feeling.

Kenny and I played a lot of duets together, for hours and hours and years and years. We played every day together for years. I mean, literally. From the early '70s and then in New York through the '80s into the '90s. I had a loft on 23rd for twenty year, from 1978 to '98, and every day there was something happening there. And Kenny had an amazing place in Brooklyn, on Bridge St, where every day, every night, we could play at his place. It was a separate building with a parking lot around it so we could play 24 hours a day. I would go to his place at 1:00 am and play all morning.

AAJ: You've mentioned so many influences and through your albums you cover numerous genres—historically you are coming from so many different angles. Do you think that has given you the tools to be an innovator?

JL: Well , I don't know. You're saying I'm an innovator—I'm trying to get myself together, but I think traveling a lot, experiencing playing with musicians in the multigenerational world that jazz is, and the multicultural world that we live in. Playing with players from North Africa and all over Europe, and the Orient—traveling to those places, collecting instruments, flutes, percussion instruments, gongs. I played a koto, I've had a koto since the first time I went to Hong Kong, around 1983 or '84, something like that. And just to sit and meditate on some tonalities, and things on different horns, that really influenced my writing and the things that I feel in music. So, my recordings reflect who I am and where I've been. They also project where I want to go. I think jazz is about your personal experiences, and the way they come out in your personal story. It has to be as wide as your scope about life and music and people. Playing with different people has definitely given me so many ideas and confidence about who I am, and your foundation is built on all of those things.

AAJ: I'm positive that elements of your approach have influenced a generation of players. However, often you hear younger players imitating Michael Brecker or Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, for example, and I've never been in a situation where I have heard someone who really sounds like you. Do you think this is because you are constantly creating, and your approach is so personal that it would be impossible for someone to imitate your voice?

JL: Well, that's a hard question for me to answer. But I think maybe my sound is so personal, and I play with a very spontaneous, melodic approach. I'm not playing what I practiced to play. I practiced things so I could play how I play. But lets say someone like Mike [Brecker], who was one of the most amazing virtuosos on the saxophone. When you hear him, you could hear that's what he practiced. Because he would work things out and practice it, and play it repeatedly, and then that's what he would play. I play really free inside the music I'm trying to execute—the ideas I'm trying to execute. So it's different. You can't really copy somebody like that, in a certain way because you can't hold on to it because it's a flowing execution of ideas.

I like to say, "I don't play free jazz, I play jazz free." I'm trying to play like that because you can play the same tune, the same harmonic sequence, and not repeat yourself. Because you're playing with the people you're playing with, you're paying attention to the people you're playing with, and the whole mood of the way people play, not just what they're playing. Some cats play the same solo on every tune, in a certain way. And it might be a great solo, but I don't know, that never got to me. Players that influenced me were cats who really tried to tell a story within the story of their story, somehow.

One thing too, a big influence, and gave me a lot of confidence. I was still in high school and Gene Ammons came and played in Cleveland. I'm growing up with all these records and I'm starting to hear people live, hearing Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, certain people I heard when I was in High School that came through Cleveland. Sonny Stitt, James Moody—I went and bought a flute the next day, when I heard Moody. And then I started taking flute lessons with friends of my dad who played more doubles.

Clarinet I got into a lot later. I had a clarinet, but I didn't like the image of a clarinetist. But then, my dad always told me you have to do this and that, and luckily I was able to get it together enough when I joined Woody Herman's band, or, especially with Woody's band—there were some clarinet parts and we played some shows. And if I couldn't have at least gotten through the part, they would have called somebody else. I mean we played behind Sarah Vaughan, and there was some clarinet in my book. I was scared to death I was going to be squeaking all over the place, you know, but I really worked hard to just try to play my part. And then with the Mel Lewis Band—that got me into playing clarinet, getting serious with doubles. Just developing a tone that was beautiful. Trying to be beautiful. And then that led me to really developing on the alto clarinet.

But getting back to Gene Ammons, he comes to Cleveland, and I'm still in high school. My dad takes me and my friend, Ron Smith, who was a vibes player, to hear Jug. And man, it was the most amazing ... I think around 1970-'71. To hear him in the room was phenomenal, after knowing his tone through all his records. And then they take a break and my dad says let's go, there was a dressing room and a kitchen behind the stage. We go and, I see my dad and Gene Ammons embrace and say hello to each other, and they hugged each other. And I was standing there, and I didn't even know. My dad didn't really talk about knowing Jug like that, I guess he had played a jam session with him the '50s.

Anyway, I saw them embrace and it was like, it made things so real. Jug wasn't just a mythical character, on his records. They knew each other, they had some kind of rapport together, they'd played together, whatever. And it woke me up to the fact that if I want to deal on the scene, and really get myself together, everyone's real man. Coltrane tried reeds just like everybody else, Sonny Rollins opens up that case and looks at his horn; takes it out of his case, you know what I'm saying? And at that early age everything is this mystery, but that brought things right down to earth for me and I treasure that moment.

Selected Discography

Joe Lovano / Us Five, Bird Songs (Blue Note, 2011)
Joe Lovano, Symphonica (Blue Note, 2008)
Joe Lovano, I'm All For You (Blue Note, 2004)
Paul Motian, I Have the Room Above Her (ECM, 2004)
ScoLoHoFo, Oh! (Blue Note, 2003)
Joe Lovano, Viva Caruso (Blue Note, 2002)
Joe Lovano, 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note, 2000)
Joe Lovano, Trio Fascination: Edition One (Blue Note, 1998)
Joe Lovano, Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1994)
Joe Lovano, From The Soul (Blue Note, 1991)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 3: Jimmy Katz

Page 2: Adam DePaz

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