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Joe Lovano: The Beauty of Expression

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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