You might think by glancing over the list of accolades garnered by saxophonist/composer Joe Lovano, that this renowned musician has found a tried-and-true formula for success, and that he has. Unlike lesser artists who will take what seems to work for them and keep coming back with more of the same, the secret to Lovano’s success is his fearless ability to always challenge and push the conceptual and thematic choices he makes in a quest for new modes of artistic expression and new takes on what defines the jazz idiom.
Lovano has recently been performing with an expanded ensemble which will be featured on his upcoming Blue Note release to be called Streams of Expression, which will include Gunther Schuller’s “Birth of the Cool Suite,” commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival as well as a five-part suite composed by Lovano.
Joe has also been performing “A Man Descending”, a concerto for saxophone and chamber orchestra written by Mark Anthony Turnage. This piece was commissioned jointly by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Helsinki Orchestra, with all of whom Joe has performed the concerto.
In Spring of 2004 Lovano dipped into waters he has not previously coursed - his first all ballads recording. I’m All For You: Ballad Songbook found the ever-searching saxophonist in the company of long-time collaborators bassist George Mraz and drummer Paul Motian. Rounding out the impeccable line-up is the legendary pianist Hank Jones. Critics loved the record and it made numerous Best of the Year lists including Number One in the New York Times. This stellar ensemble followed the acclaimed ballad recording and the highly-anticipated concerts that followed with a sequel in May 2005.
Joyous Encounter features a more varied collection of tempos in a stellar repertoire including compositions from the leader and pianist as well as charts by Monk, Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, and Jones’ brother Thad in whose band Lovano apprenticed early on. In many ways, this recording pays tribute to the jazz legacy of the Jones brothers with the late, great drummer brother Elvin having been a collaborator of both Lovano and Hank. His memory is paid homage by the inclusion John Coltrane’s “Crescent” and Oliver Nelson’s “Six and Four” which were hallmarks of Elvin’s recording career.
These succulent programs of gorgeous, emotionally resonant playing are highlights of Lovano’s storied career. The stellar Mr. Jones brings his stunning harmonic sensibility to an array of compositions that Lovano has chosen for their timeless beauty, melodic fortitude and improvisational breadth. The chance to hear this ensemble once again relishing in each other’s company is indeed a Joyous Encounter and continued to garner the high praise heaped upon their first meeting.
Lovano has also spent a good deal of time in the past year collaborating, both in the studio and the concert hall, with two other premier tenor saxophonists of his generation. Joining Joe in the collective Saxophone Summit are Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. Their first release Gathering of The Spirits was released in 2004 on Telarc.
Joe Lovano was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952, and began playing alto sax as a child. A prophetic early family photo is of the infant Joe cradled in his mother’s arms along with a sax. His father, tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano, schooled Joe not only in the basics but in dynamics and interpretation, and regularly exposed him to jazz artists traveling through such as Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While still a teenager he immersed himself in the jam-session culture of Cleveland where organ trios were common and Texas tenor throw-downs a rite of passage. In high school he began to absorb the free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Jimmy Giuffre, and was greatly affected by the interaction, which occurred between the musicians.
Upon graduation from high school he attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston where he met and began playing with such future collaborators as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Kenny Werner. He had been searching for a way to incorporate the fire and spirituality of late-period John Coltrane into more traditional settings. At Berklee he discovered modal harmony: “My training was all be-bop, and suddenly there were these open forms with deceptive resolutions. That turned me on, the combination of that sound and what I came in there with. I knew what I wanted to work on after that.” In 1994 Joe was given the prestigious “Distinguished Alumni Award” from Berklee and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1998. Berklee also awarded Joe the first “Gary Burton Chair for Jazz Performance” in 2001.
Joe’s first professional job after Berklee was, not surprisingly given his roots, with organist Lonnie Smith, which brought him to New York for his recording debut, followed by a stint with Brother Jack McDuff. This segued into a three-year tour with the Woody Herman Thundering Herd from 1976 to 1979, culminating in “The 40th Anniversary Concert” at Carnegie Hall, which also features some of Joe’s heroes and fellow saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Flip Phillips, Al Cohn and Jimmy Giuffre.
After leaving the Herman Herd, Joe settled in New York City where he continues to live. His early years there filled with jam sessions and rent gigs, but eventually he joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra for its regular Monday night concert at the Village Vanguard, playing from 1980 to 1992 and recording six albums with the Orchestra. In addition he joined the Paul Motian band in 1981 and has worked with John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Dave Holland, Ed Blackwell, Michel Petrucciani, Lee Konitz, Abbey Lincoln, Tom Harrell, McCoy Tyner, Jim Hall, Bob Brookmeyer and many more.
His first high-profile gig that brought him national attention was with guitarist John Scofield’s Quartet, with whom he recorded and toured for three years. Of his playing Scofield says, “He’s very sonically aware - he thinks about the effect different instruments and different personalities will have. He was perfect for what I was doing - his sense of swing and his tone reminded me of the older guys, in a really positive way.” He gained further exposure and renown, particularly in Europe, through his work in the trailblazing Paul Motian Trio, which also featured former Berklee classmate, guitarist Bill Frisell.
Lovano’s debut Blue Note release Landmarks (Blue Note 96108) was released in 1991 and featured guitarist John Abercrombie. Joe’s first engagement as a leader (at the Village Vanguard) coincided with the release of that record. The critically acclaimed From the Soul (Blue Note 98636) followed with Michel Petrucciani, Dave Holland and the legendary Ed Blackwell. Recently, readers of AllAboutJazz.com voted From the Soul Number 34 in their all-time Top 100 Jazz CDs poll. Joe has long experimented with different ensembles, which reflect his searching and dynamic personality. As much a composer as player, Joe is constantly seeking new ways to express his muse.
His third Blue Note album Universal Language (Blue Note 99830) features the soprano voice of Judi Silvano, whose wordless vocals mesh beautifully in both ensemble and improvised passages with Joe, as well as trumpeter Tim Hagans and pianist Kenny Werner. His next album, the 1994 release Tenor Legacy (Blue Note 27014), features tenor saxophonist Josh Redman, and received wide critical acclaim, culminating in a Grammy nomination for “Best Jazz Small Group Recording.”
Predictably unpredictable, Joe’s Rush Hour (Blue Note 29629), released in early 1995, reflects his restless searching and desire to expand his musical palette. It features his tenor saxophone with voice, string and woodwind ensembles arranged and conducted by the legendary Gunther Schuller, in compositions by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller and Joe Lovano. As CD Review’s “Disc of the Month” stated, “Music doesn’t get any better than this. This disc is a wonder.” Joe and Gunther subsequently collaborated on the score for a Showtime movie, “Face Down,” which starred Joe Montegna.
Joe Lovano ended 1996 with Joe Lovano Quartets at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note 29125), winning “Jazz Album of the Year” in the 1996 Down Beat Readers Poll. Recorded at two separate engagements at the historic Village Vanguard in New York City, the special set features Joe with Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash on one CD, and with Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart on the other. Down Beat Magazine’s 5-star review says simply, “The Vanguard sessions are extraordinary.”
Joe began 1997 with two Grammy nominations for the Village Vanguard recording and the release of his most eagerly anticipated Joe Lovano Celebrating Sinatra (Blue Note CDP 37718) with Joe’s tenor sax surrounded by string quartet, woodwind quintet, voice and rhythm section in arrangements by Manny Albam. As Peter Watrous in the New York Times observed, “This is a perfectly balanced piece of work, quiet chamber jazz at its best, with Mr. Lovano’s odd phrasing, with its halts and velocity, taking the music somewhere new.”
Joe Lovano rolled into 1998 with yet another Grammy nomination for Joe Lovano Celebrating Sinatra - and the release of yet another completely different recording, Flying Colors (Blue Note CDP 56092), a duo album with the great Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. In a four-star review the Los Angeles Times said, “Each piece reveals yet another perspective on the talent of two extraordinary players, clearly inspired by the setting and each other, creating some of the finest jazz in recent memory.”
Joe followed Flying Colors with the fiery release Trio Fascination: Edition One (Blue Note CDP 33114) features what is arguably the finest rhythm section in jazz, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Dave Holland. The Times of London noted, “In Joe Lovano, a player firmly grounded in swing values yet discerningly alive to subsequent developments from Charlie Parker through Coltrane to Ornette Coleman, the trio format has found one of its most natural exponents since Sonny Rollins or Joe Henderson . . . this is state-of-the-art trio jazz.”
In 1999, Lovano’s collaboration with fellow Blue Note recording artist alto saxophonist Greg Osby Friendly Fire (Blue Note CDP 99125) garnered critical acclaim. Featuring Joe’s touring rhythm section Cameron Brown on bass and Idris Muhammad on drums along with Greg and his frequent pianist Jason Moran, the music on this release is an exciting blend of Lovano’s passionate soulfulness and Osby’s angular precision. The disc features three original compositions by each of the leaders and distinctive arrangements of “Serene” by Eric Dolphy and “Broadway Blues” by Ornette Coleman. “Monk’s Mood” by Thelonious Monk is cast as a duet performance between Lovano and Moran.
Joe followed Friendly Fire with his busiest and most creative year yet. Lovano jumped into the new millennium with the gorgeous release, 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note CDP 96667). Recorded with a stellar cast of musicians, the charts penned by Joe and legendary Cleveland arranger Willie “Face” Smith, are jazz classics recast for ensembles as large as nonet. The acclaimed session features compositions by some of the art form’s greatest composers. Winner of a Grammy for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album”, 52nd Street Themes, Joe’s tribute to the days when swing and bebop co-mingled freely, can be found on many critic’s Best of 2000 lists. From a five-star review, Down Beat: “...[Lovano’s] most important and most fully realized recording to date....He plays here with a balance of imaginative abandon and technical control that has not been heard since John Coltrane...” CMJ reported: “...The release has a vintage bop sound and the individual performances here boasts a gentle, reverent feel that masterfully recaptures those bygone days when giants walked the earth and played ‘the street’.”
In 2001, Joe received “Jazz Artist of the Year” honors for the third time in both Critic’s & Reader’s polls in Down Beat magazine spurred by his acclaimed return to the trio format on Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Edition Two (Blue Note CDP 27618). Here Joe gathers four unique ensembles of some of his favorite collaborators for a distinctively varied take on the jazz trio. Joe, who is featured on not only a panoply of woodwinds but on drums, gongs and percussion is joined by trio mates: Cameron Brown (bass) & Idris Muhammad (drums); Billy Drewes (soprano, alto flute, percussion) & Joey Baron (drums); Toots Thielemans (harmonica) & Kenny Werner (piano); Mark Dresser (bass) & Dave Douglas (trumpet). Combined with Lovano’s multi-instrumental facility the sonic palette these trios utilize is stunning in its scope. “The different trios that came out of these sessions were, for me, an expression of who I am as a musician,” Lovano says.
In his 2002 Blue Note release, Lovano explores the music one of the greatest musical figures of our time on Viva Caruso (Blue Note CDP 35986). Featuring both an “Opera House Ensemble” (up to 12 pieces) and a “Street Band”, comprised of stellar improvisers such as Gil Goldstein, Ed Schuller, Billy Drewes, Joey Baron, Judi Silvano and others. The album finds Lovano investigating many of the popular melodies made famous by the Italian tenor, songs Joe’s grandparents brought with them from Italy just after the turn of the century when Caruso was touring the world as the first international solo artist to do so. “In the tradition of Bird’s ‘White Christmas’ and Sonny Rollins’ ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’,” Lovano notes, “the challenge was to take these well-known melodies and try to make them my own.”
With arranger/orchestrator Byron Olson, Lovano utilizes a variety of settings to bring this project to fruition. “The idea was to try and interpret this music in a way that’s free and organic,” he says, “and to put myself into Caruso’s world.” Viva Caruso, which will be released in time for the centenary of Caruso’s first recording, is a decidedly unique and forward looking homage to one of the greatest of musical talents by one of today’s most acclaimed jazz artists.
In 2003, Lovano treated us to two incredible releases on Blue Note. In the summer he bowed a dynamic live recording by his Grammy-winning Joe Lovano Nonet. Recorded On This Day…At The Vanguard, this swinging date shows off incendiary charts by Joe, Willie “Face” Smith and Steve Slagle and the hip improvisations of one of Lovano’s most acclaimed ensembles. Some of Lovano’s most swinging and accessible charts feature masterful improvisations from the acclaimed cast of jazz heavyweights.
One of the most anticipated jazz projects of the last year hit the streets in January of 2003 - Oh! by ScoLoHoFo. The dynamic all-star co-op finds Joe Lovano in cahoots with John Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster for a program of original compositions from each of the leader’s pens. This impressive line-up of some of the most acclaimed musicians of the past 25 years is a natural. They have all performed together in a variety of situations but never all at once until the formation of this group for a date at the Montreal Jazz Festival. On stage and on record they create a new jazz alchemy from the symbiotic relationship of four of the most distinctive improvisational voices in the world today.
As if that wasn’t enough Mr. Lovano followed his stint as the recipient of the first Gary Burton Jazz Performance Chair at his Berklee alma mater with a new position as Artistic Director at the acclaimed Caramoor Jazz Festival in New York. In addition, Joe’s self-released DVD/VHS instructional video Jazz Standards: Solo Interpretations & Expressions, features an intimate recital with the master featured on a variety of horns and classic tunes. Lovano also recently released an instructional DVD through Berklee Press, Berklee Workshop: Jazz Improvisation - A Personal Approach With Joe Lovano.
As the Village Voice proclaimed, “Move over Pavarotti, the great Italian tenor around today isn’t Luciano, but Lovano.”