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For Grammy-winning jazzman Joe Lovano, freedom and variety are key

"Free jazz is one thing," says Joe Lovano, "but I like to say I play jazz free."

The Grammy-award-winning saxophonist, who has been playing professionally for four decades, improvises like he's been liberated. He says it's about developing a way of playing where you're not harnessed by playing what you practice and playing patterns and repeating yourself.

"To be able to explore music with all kinds of people also gives you that trust and freedom in your playing because you're living in the music," Lovano explains. "It's playing in a state of mind of openness and listening and trust that gives you those foundations. It's also being able to execute your ideas on your instrument without letting your instrument hold you back.

"To develop your technique as a musician," he goes on, "is to be able to execute things in all keys and hear some things that are happening, to hear the rhythm of what's going on around you — not just what you're trying to play, but to listen to the way the drums and the rhythm is going on around you."

With drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela in his Us Five quintet, rhythm is a big part of Lovano's music, especially on the brand-new Blue Note release Cross Culture. Having two drummers grew out of having the chance to play with master drummers over the last forty years, guys like Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Mel Lewis, Elvin Jones, Idris Muhammad and Bill Stewart.

"This double-drummer configuration kind of evolved from not only my passion about it, but with my creative conception about the approach to creating music together as an ensemble," Lovano reveals. "And to have a quintet with two drummers, all of a sudden you not only have the quintet, but four quartets, ten trios, nine duos — you have many combinations of things that can happen in this group. That spontaneous orchestration is what jazz is talking about — trying to create and play music together as an ensemble."

The current lineup of Joe Lovano Us Five — which is rounded out by pianist James Weidman and bassist Esperanza Spalding — first performed at the Village Vanguard in 2007, and the act's first recording, Folk Art, was released in 2009 on Blue Note. Two years later, the group followed up with Bird Songs, in which they focused on the compositions of Charlie Parker but arranged them in a special way for the ensemble, with forward-thinking arrangements.

"Everyone has their own personal story," Lovano points out. "You can't tell someone else's story in music. So the idea of Bird Songs was to take some of Charlie Parker's incredible structures, harmonies and melodies and make them our own."

Cross Culture, says Lovano, is an extension of both of those recordings, in a way, as well as the development of how the musicians are playing together. "We're having a lot of fun, and we're exploring elements within the world of music," he notes. "On Cross Culture, there's a real tribal feeling within the very sophisticated harmonic and melodic development in modern jazz."

Another theme of Cross Culture is exploring the concept of how music is a universal language. During his international travels over the past forty years, Lovano says he's collected instruments from all over the world. "I really live on them and vibrate on them," he says. "All kinds of flutes and different woodwind instruments and percussion instruments like gongs and sounds that reach back into a timeless place within the history of music. Some of the instruments I have pre-date the United States. You know, gongs — instruments from China, Asia and Africa and the Middle East — and when you really get into some of those sounds and spirits, your music goes other places."

On Cross Culture, Lovano plays various percussion instruments and a number of different horns in addition to his staple tenor and soprano saxophones. Take the aulochrome, for example, made by Belgian Francois Louis, which Lovano plays on "Modern Man." Lovano says it's the first woodwind instrument that you can actually harmonize on when you play. Essentially, it's two soprano saxophones mechanically fused together, with one fingerboard going down the center, and each key has two parts to it.

"When you play both parts, you get the unison sound," he says. "When you release the bottom part, it opens tone holes on one instrument, on the left instrument. So as you're playing your lines on the right body and you're releasing parts of the key on the left body of the horn, you're opening up holes that are harmonizing with what you're playing."

The concept evidently dates back to early Greek mythology, where there are pictures and drawings of the aulos, an instrument that had two bells and two sides to it. Lovano says one side would have a drone pitch and the other side could be fingered to play pitches against that drone. While Rahsaan Roland Kirk was playing multiple horns at once decades ago and could harmonize, Lovano says he couldn't follow his line like he could on the aulochrome. "Rahsaan," Lovano says, "would have embraced this horn, like, immediately."

On Cross Culture, Lovano also uses a G-mezzo soprano, which is in the key of G and is between an alto and a soprano saxophone, as well as the taragato, a Hungarian folk instrument for which the fingering is between that of a clarinet and a saxophone. "It's in the soprano range," he says, "but it vibrates very differently, because it's wood and it has a real earthy feel."

Cross Culture likewise has a somewhat earthy, organic feel while still having its roots in jazz. The last song on the album, "PM," is dedicated to drummer Paul Motian, whom Lovano started playing with in 1981 (when Motian was 50 and Lovano was 29) until near the drummer's death in November 2011. On "PM," Lovano says, he tried to write a structure and a form that covered a lot of ground.

"In that one piece, we're playing a very bright tempo, we're playing a blues, we're playing a ballad," he explains. "And we just have to improvise and create those moods as we're moving along, the way Paul was such a master at. I think we really created a beautiful tapestry of sequences throughout that piece."

While growing up in Cleveland, Lovano says, he had a lot of albums with Motian drumming on them and heard him play with Keith Jarrett. "He was the link with the modern jazz world, really, because he was tight with Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones," says Lovano. "And through the years, especially the beginning years, in the early '80s, we played a lot of festivals in Europe with Max Roach's band and folks like that. So I had a chance to be heard by the masters like that and hear them and know them on a personal level. You can't put into words what you carry away from things like that."

Lovano's experience of performing and recording with Motian over a thirty-year period no doubt inspired him, but he says he's also been influenced by a lot of different saxophone players over the years, from Lester Young and Ben Webster to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp.

Lovano, who celebrated his sixtieth birthday in December, is gearing up for two big shows to celebrate his sixth decade, including two nights at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center in February and a gig at the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland that includes his brothers Anthony and Carl as well as his wife, vocalist Judi Silvano.

"My whole thing with birthdays is projections and reflections, and that's how I've been living through the years," Lovano concludes. "This was a nice one. I have a lot of beautiful things to reflect on."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon