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Joe lovano: The intimate moment of now 

March 8, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin

Joe Lovano (photo by Jimmy Katz)

The Smiling Dog Saloon was a Cleveland jazz club in a converted bowling alley where Joe Lovano faced some challenges as a young saxophonist. In 1975, when he was 22, he sat in with Elvin Jones, a trial by fire that jump-started a 30-year musical relationship with the drummer. Another time, Lovano sat in with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who was less impressed: “He didn’t say one word to me — sent me to the woodshed,” recalls Lovano, who also jammed at the Smiling Dog with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. “We played ‘On Green Dolphin Street’; I’ll never forget it. Sonny Stitt was such an amazing virtuoso,” says Lovano, 66, who still sounds awed. “He was a teacher. If you’re a young saxophone player, he would quiz you. He asked me, ‘How many holes are on your horn?’” Lovano remembers being flustered by the question: How many holes? “I looked down and started to count ‘em. He says, ‘26!’”

“I’ve had a real blessed life, man, developing myself around some of the masters,” says Lovano, a Cleveland native who long ago established himself as one of jazz’s most prominent and widely-recorded saxophonists. He has a massive sound, warm and wooly or a bit unruly when he chooses. It’s a personal sound, instantly recognizable; Lovano has a voice. Significantly, he has retained his musical curiosity through the decades. Now a Resident Artistic Director at SFJAZZ, he will lead five different bands during a four-night residency in San Francisco (March 14-17).

He will lead his bebop nonet, followed by a pair of freewheeling trios, one with guitarist Bill Frisell, the other with pianist Marilyn Crispell. He also will perform in a duo setting with Cuban piano master Chucho Valdés, and finally he will lead a “Tenor Summit” sextet featuring saxophonists Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane. Underlining the variety of styles and approaches, there’s a unifying theme: “It’s not just notes; it’s sounds and feelings,” he says. “It’s not what we’re playing; it’s how we’re playing.” Also, behind each band, there’s a story; after 40-plus years in the business, Lovano has a motherlode of stories to tap. He describes his life in music as a tapestry of relationships, a weaving together of threads that go back to Cleveland and to life lessons taught him by his father, tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano. “My dad had a lot of passion. He was a barber, too; he had a family. But he gigged five, six nights a week. My dad was a character, man, and he really instilled in me about being versatile and playing in many settings so you could pay the phone bill. And through the years, that just kept snowballing into different situations, like my playing with Machito in New York and being able to play with the Woody Herman band. When I got that gig with Woody’s band, I was 23, and I ended up on stage at Carnegie Hall for his 40th anniversary, sitting next to Stan Getz. Imagine that.”

We talked to Lovano about his upcoming residency at SFJAZZ.

Night One (March 14): 52nd Street Themes Nonet
Lovano describes the group as “a real family kind of band,” including fellow saxophonists Steve Slagle and Ralph Lalama, friends from his early days in New York in the 1970s. The band won a GRAMMY for 52nd Street Themes, its first album for Blue Note, released in 2000, and it has accumulated a large book of tunes over the years: classics by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and, especially, pianist Tadd Dameron, a Cleveland native who wrote some of the bebop era’s most enduring melodies.

Naturally, there’s a family connection: “My dad played with Tadd,” says Lovano, who grew up hearing Dameron’s tunes. He ticks off some favorites: “’If You Could See Me Now.’ ‘On a Misty Night.’ ‘Whatever Possess’d Me.’ Those are some of the pieces we’ll play. And then there’s ‘Tadd’s Delight’ and ‘Good Bait,’ which might’ve been the first one that I learned. But then ‘Hot House’ – that’s the tune that really had an influence. The way Dizzy (Gillespie) and Charlie Parker played that tune, the melody itself is like a challenge to execute. My father taught it to me, and, as a result, I started to play the saxophone better. There’s certain music, when you play it, you play your instrument better because of the phrasing and the way you play through it. Tadd’s music is like that. Monk, too.”

Lovano never met Dameron, a reclusive figure who died in New York in 1965. However, he met Tadd’s older brother, Caesar Dameron, who “was a great alto player, and I got to play with him at a jam session when I was a teenager. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I’d go around with some of my friends, and I had my horn at this private club where they had a Wednesday night session, when Caeser walked in. I remember telling my dad, ‘I played with Caesar Dameron!’”

Lovano also got to know Willie “Face” Smith, one of Tadd Dameron’s copyists, whose arrangements are in the nonet’s repertoire: “Willie is someone I knew all my life. There’s a lot of love in his sound and it’s fun to have an ensemble where you can play this music and shape it as you move along. While we’re playing, I can direct and change the flow of things in a free manner,” says Lovano. That spontaneous approach has been “inspired by my time playing with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and by playing with Carla Bley, playing with Thad (Jones) and Mel (Lewis), playing with Woody. There’s a lot of personal history wrapped up there, and to have an ensemble with some of my friends, great players who I’ve come up with – this band is special. It’s been living a long time.”

Night Two (March 15): Trioism
This program of freewheeling music has its own backstory: Drummer Carmen Castaldi, who rounds out Lovano’s new trio with Marilyn Crispell, is one of the saxophonist’s oldest musical friends going back to their teen years in Cleveland. While still in high school, and then as college music students, he and Castaldi got into free improvisation: “I’d go over to Carmen’s house and we’d play in his basement, trying out some open music. We were listening to everything: Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ornette (Coleman). We were listening to the masters of improvisation at an early age, and we were trying to get at some different things.”

Nearly 50 years later, Lovano, Castaldi and Crispell have a new album on ECM, titled Trio Tapestry. This is mystery music: sound and silence, hauntingly pure expression that commands the listener to pay attention. “It’s the most personal music I’m involved in right now,” Lovano says. “Putting this trio together is getting back to that intimate expression that is so beautiful. And with no bass in the band, for me, all of a sudden, I’m the bass. I’m playing the horn from top to bottom and bottom to top, in between the piano and the drums. It’s like an amazing exploration in each piece.”

There’s one more backstory: For 30 years, starting in 1981, Lovano and Bill Frisell played in a trio led by the late drummer Paul Motian. If Lovano learned about mystery music from anyone, it was from Motian, who played with Coleman Hawkins, Monk, Keith Jarrett and so many others, developing a shape-shifting approach to rhythm and pared-back percussive gesture. Motian’s trio was about “spontaneity within the forms,” Lovano says. “We developed a way of playing that is about sharing the space and creating the music within the music. For me and Bill, it became a springboard to everything we’ve done since.”

At SFJAZZ, on the same March 15 program, Lovano will lead a second trio with Frisell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. These musicians conjure “a whole other sonic quality and a different kind of rhythmic tapestry,” Lovano comments. “Because Tyshawn has a really powerful approach and with Bill’s guitar, there’s a real electronic energy that’s happening in that sound world.” That said, Sorey — like Motian — can drop down to the sparest of gestures, playing in a kind of kabuki jazz language that’s as much about silence as sound. He, too, is a disciple of Motian, as is pianist Crispell — who played with Motian in a quartet that included Lovano. In other words, the two trios on the bill at SFJAZZ have a lot in common, and Lovano plans to end the show by combining them into one unit: saxophone, guitar, piano and two drummers, an unorthodox lineup that Motian would have appreciated. The band members will pick a few of Motian’s tunes “and make it happen on the spot,” Lovano says. “The art of improvisation is what this is all about, having seeds and ideas that grow from within the tune. You can’t really rehearse it. It’s like Wayne Shorter always says: ‘How can you rehearse the unexpected?’ It’s about following the sound.”

Night Three (March 16, two shows): Joe Lovano & Chucho Valdés
Another connecting thread: When Lovano went to Cuba in the late 1980s to play with bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Paul Motian was the band’s drummer. The Cuban jazz scene was opening up, the local musicians were mingling with the visiting Americans, and, one way or another, Joe Lovano connected with Chucho Valdés, the maestro of modern Afro-Cuban jazz. “It just kind of happened,” Lovano says.

In 2003, Valdés invited Lovano to bring a band to the Havana Jazz Festival. The saxophonist’s group included drummer Idris Muhammad, who grew up in New Orleans and embodied the rhythmic connections between his hometown and the Caribbean: “Idris brought all these cymbals and sticks and he was giving things away to all the drummers,” Lovano remembers, “and he and I ended up playing with Chucho in a quartet.” In 2016, Lovano and Valdés, as co-leaders, put together a quintet that played about 35 dates in the United States and Europe.

As their musical conceptions tightened, they decided to perform as a duo: “Playing duets with Chucho is amazing because he plays with such a full approach and concept on his instrument and in his whole being,” Lovano says. “For San Francisco, we’re going to put together a whole special set – my tunes, his tunes and some other famous tunes, I’m not sure which ones. We’ll have to talk about it at the soundcheck.” Lovano laughs and goes on: “We can play anything from ‘Giant Steps’ to ‘Stella By Starlight.’ We’ll see where it goes, and with Chucho it can go anywhere. He’s so into the history of jazz and his influences are so deep. We really got close on the road, when he told me about his young life coming up in Cuba before the revolution. And of course his father” – Bebo Valdés, the pianist, composer and bandleader – “was a master musician. Just like I grew up around my father’s colleagues and generation, Chucho did the same. He was involved with Bebo’s whole trip with all the master players – Chano Pozo and all the cats who got involved with Dizzy Gillespie in New York. Chucho grew up with all that, and, on top of that, he’s a virtuoso classical pianist. I can’t say enough about him. He sits down at the piano and you hear all that history, and you hear the future.”

Night Four (March 17): Tenor Summit with Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane
This night of fireworks features three saxophonists who are the sons of saxophonists: “I’ve got Josh Redman, Dewey Redman’s son,” Lovano says, “and Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son. And I’m a son of a saxophone player: Tony ‘Big T’ Lovano was a leading player around Cleveland in his day. And I was completely influenced by my dad and by that whole constellation of players from his generation, including Dewey and Trane. It infuses every note that I play. So I want to touch on some fathers and sons kind of things with this ‘Tenor Summit.’”

When he played in the Liberation Music Orchestra, Lovano often sat next to Dewey Redman whose rangy blues-to-freebop approach — equal parts roots and freedom – had long been an inspiration to Lovano. “This was the late ‘80s, when Josh was going to Harvard, and Dewey was talking about him all the time: ‘Wait ‘til you hear my son!’ My son! My son! Dewey Redman was one of the most incredible musicians; to play with him was something else, but just to know him was a trip. So I was hearing about Josh and I remember one time I was playing in Boston and Josh was still in school and he came to hear me, and that’s the first time we met.”

In 1991, Redman won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition and soon signed with Warner Brothers, releasing his first album in 1993. That year, Lovano planned to record for Blue Note with saxophonist George Adams, but changed course when Adams was diagnosed with cancer. “George wasn’t up to it; it was a rough time. But Josh was on the scene and emerging like a monster. So I hit on him to make the session and that became our first record together, a real magical, beautiful session. And in San Francisco, we’ll play some of the tunes from that album,” titled Tenor Legacy.

Noting that he also expects to play some compositions by John Coltrane, he traces his friendship with Ravi Coltrane: “When I came to New York in the 1970s, I met Rashied Ali (who had been John Coltrane’s drummer), and I sat in with his group. Rashied, he was one of the most sincere, gentle, explosive and inspirational players and people. And when Ravi came to New York in the ‘90s, he was staying with Rashied. And I had a rehearsal space not far from Rashied’s pad on Greene Street in SoHo, and so that’s how I met Ravi, because we started playing together with Rashied.”

What struck him about the young Ravi Coltrane?

“That he was John Coltrane’s son and he played the saxophone!” Lovano laughs. “I already had heard about him because Ravi went to Cal Arts (in Los Angeles) and studied with Charlie Haden. So when he came to New York, I was hip to him and was feeling the vibrations from that real beautiful, spiritual world he carries within him.” For years, Ravi Coltrane played with Lovano and Dave Liebman in a “Saxophone Summit” band. In 2014 at SFJAZZ, when Ravi celebrated the 50th anniversary of his father’s landmark album A Love Supreme, he asked Lovano to participate in a performance of the suite: “So we have this relationship, this history, and I’m sure we’ll play some of his pop’s tunes” at SFJAZZ, says Lovano. “My dad was into his dad’s whole sound. In fact, my dad played a jam session with Coltrane in the early ‘50s when Trane was playing in Cleveland with a blues band, on alto, and that’s probably when Trane first started to deal with Tadd Dameron. I grew up hearing about all of these things, and I always wanted to experience playing with the masters. My dad instilled it in me, about studying the whole melodic, harmonic, rhythmic world — that tapestry. It’s still what makes me want to play better and to be more expressive in everything I do. And that keeps you in constant study, studying new compositions, studying new ways of putting ideas together, learning to play with others and to share the space, following the sound, so that the intimate moment of now is primary.”