Joe Lovano plays the shit out of the saxophone, that much is clear. He's paid all his dues, come up though the ranks, including stints with big bands like Woody Herman. But he doesn't just play. He's an artist. The sound comes from inside a big heart, informed, of course, by his study and hard work on the instrument.
He seems to be everywhere. Leading his fine Us Five group, playing with John Scofield and others, sitting in with all kinds of heavy hitters. Keeping his nonet alive. His sweeping, probing,muscular sound, particularly on tenor sax, is all over. Thankfully.
A conversation with Joe is always intriguing. Affable,insightful,intelligent and at the same time down to earth. Lovano is free with his thoughts; humble; engaging. As his Us Five tour swung through the Albany, NY, area earlier this year, we spoke again and, on this day at least, the saxophonist was pensive about his life, which had reached the age of 60 years. Like the sounds that cascade from the bell of his horn, his words are hearfelt.
Sixty is in the mind, people will say. It's he new 40. The new 30. Whatever. It can be the new fucking 15, who cares? Depends on the person. State of mind, for sure. For this major artist, it's prime years and there is surely much more on his plate and on his path.
For me, it's about reflections and projections. Definitely, 60 is kind of a milestone you look to as you're approaching it. Like 50 is. Like 40 is ... The thing is, you realize more and more how you got to this place. Your travels and your experiences all build on each other to create tomorrow. I feel thankful and blessed to live in the world of music, as I do, and have such a beautiful family experience. In my personal roots. My mom's family and in my dad's family.
His mother died in 2012 but Lovano still draws inspiration from her.
I feel I'm just scratching the surface in a lot of ways," he said. Everything you do fuels your ideas. I've been real fortunate to have played with some of the masters of the music, from the earliest times, for me. Before I even joined the Woody Herman band, the great players that I developed under in Cleveland, with my dad (Tony Big T" Lovano) and his whole crowd. Then playing with Lonnie Smith and Jack McDuff. Moving to New York. Joining Woody's band at 23. Standing next to Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall playing Early Autumn," with him playing lead.
That time was a heavy springboard into the future for me. Looking back on it, and the way I was embraced by Woody and his incredible legacy. To know Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Jimmy Guiffre. Flip Phillips. I played on Flip's last recording when he was 85, called 'Swing is the Thing.' It came out on Verve. James Carter and I were guests with Flip on that date. That was incredible ... Recently, Dave Brubeck passed. He did a record—he had just turned 75—called 'Old Lions and Young Tigers.' It turned out to be Gerry Mulligan's last session. Mulligan was on that with George Shearing, Jon Hendricks. Other folks in Dave's generation. Then myself, Mike Brecker, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride. We were the tigers. (Brubeck) wrote a tune for everybody. He wrote a tune for me called 'The Joe Lovano Tango.'
Then to play with Hank (Jones). He played on three sessions with me. I toured Europe four times in a quartet, which I led. Hank was around 82 or 83 when we started playing together. I played on his 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. Also in New York, at Birdland. To experience playing with some of the true masters of the music. Paul Motian, who passed last year. Bill Frisell and I joined him in 1981. We were playing with him until the end. He turned to when I started playing with him. He passed at 80."
Lovano isn't blowing smoke. He admires those who made and strengthened the art form, and suffered for it in many cases. Each different artistic step he takes, there are pieces of those people that inspire and inform that stroll.
Reflecting on those things not only strengthens you for today, but you realize where you've been and how that's influenced you in your music and as a man. I'm feeling all the blessings, that's for sure."
The Us Five band has been playing for a while now,and like any good group of improvising musicians, they get a better feel for one another. They develop their own language. But they also bring their own influences that can change the direction of the music — on a given night, at a given moment, or less conspicuous, over the course of time. He's happy with the way the band has developed and enthused that it contains so many musical possibilities.
It's like the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. When Thad would conduct, night to night he would direct and change the way the rhythm section would play. He'd cut off the drums or bass. Things just happened from knowing each other and people paying attention. It could happen in any ensemble, like the way Miles' bands always were. There's certain things that take shape from night to night that are really beautiful and creative. That's been happening in this group from the beginning. The idea of having double drummers, all of a sudden everyone's not just playing a role. Everyone has to participate in a more personal way."
Each of us are doing other things," he said. Esperanza (Spealding, bassist) is emerging as a leader. She's writing and touring as a leader with different size groups. Mela (drummer Francisco Mela) has different bands he's putting together and playing with other folks. Otis (drummer Otis Brown III) also. James (Weiderman, pianist) and myself. During this whole time we've been together as a band, we've all been playing and doing things outside of that situation. When you come back together, you bring your experiences—where you've traveled, where you've been—into the mix. That's been happening too. That's, in a way, why the music keeps growing and developing. People that only play in one situation, the music can get routine. That's not happening with us because everyone's into some things."
A life experience builds upon another. For artists, it's essential to growth. It should be that wayy for everyone. (those results are still not in).
When this band first started, I was doing stuff with Hank (Jones) that was influencing how I was going to have this band. That was a rich period, 2003, 2004. When I first met Esperanza, she was in some of my ensembles. My recording Viva Caruso" came out. The recordings with Hank were starting to come out and I was playing a lot with him. Esperanza and all those folks, Mela and everybody I was playing with at that time, which is now about eight years ago already, those things were fueling their direction and approach at that young age."
He pauses, like he does at time before the next explosive statement of a sax solo.
Everything you do fuels your ideas for stuff that's gonna happen. That feels really good."
Hell, yeah. Sixty more, Joe.