INTERMISSION | 15 minutes with …

Joe Lovano

An interview with the generation-bridging tenor saxophonist.

By Cristofer Gross – Many jazz musicians grew up in homes filled with music. For saxophone great Joe Lovano, a healthy portion of the music in his Cleveland home was live: His father, Tony "Big T" Lovano, barbered by day and played tenor saxophone by night.

"When my dad was coming up, the jazz scene in Cleveland was pretty happening," Lovano told me in August 2013. "It was part of the circuit and everybody played everywhere. He had a chance to hear Lester Young and Charlie Parker live, and played in jam sessions with Coltrane and, in the early '50s, with [Cleveland native] Tadd Dameron."

After more than four decades of historic performances, landmark collaborations, and a seemingly unbroken string of critically acclaimed recordings, 60-year-old Lovano is finishing another year of high-profile gigs. It began with the inaugural concert in the new SFJAZZ concert hall in San Francisco, where he joined McCoy Tyner, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and drummer Eric Harland for an all-star quartet. It nears its end with four shows at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, December 13 and 14, again with Tyner, as a guest artist with his trio featuring bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela.

In between, Sound Prints, his quintet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Joey Barron, were on tour including several triple bills with Wayne Shorter's quartet and ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lynn Carrington, and Spalding), to mark Shorter's 80th birthday year. [Read Carrington interview.]

In December 2013, he shared a Grammy Award nomination in the Large Jazz Ensemble category for his work as a featured guest on the Brussels Jazz Orchestra's Wild Beauty (Half Note).

The headlining and headline-making will continue in 2014 when he is part of a new collaborative quartet called Spring with drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Leo Genovese, and Spalding. Spring will appear at UCLA Live at the Royce Hall on February 22. Spalding's frequent associations with Lovano began back in her earliest days after graduating from Berklee in 2008, when she joined Lovano's Us Five – another active group of his.

Contributing to Lovano's success is a consistent ability to make the adventurous accessible. Dig in anywhere to his lengthy discography as leader or sideman you will hear why. He has an eager, genuine embrace of jazz styles and musicians from every generation and culture. No doubt it is due in some part to that childhood home his Sicilian-American parents filled every kind of musician passing through Cleveland. They had come for the sound of Big T's tenor, the fragrance of Josephine's cooking, and lots of musicians from cities across the nation.

When we spoke in August, it was for background on stories for two Segerstrom Center publications. [Read Revue feature 'Generating Jazz'].

THEATERTIMES. You clearly love working with musicians of every generation and style.

JOE LOVANO [Laughs.]When I was a teenager and learning the music, I was playing in all kinds of groups. All through high school and then going to Berklee College of Music in 1971, I also played with musicians in my dad's generation. That was an amazing, key element about developing. Plus, he had an amazing record collection, so I just grew up knowing all the stories and listening to all the masters.

Eventually when I got to New York and was trying to establish myself, the cats I wanted to play with I had been listening to for years and years – McCoy Tyner among them. I was already very comfortable playing with older cats as well as people in my generation. And that foundation really stayed with me always.

Like at the same time I'm doing Us Five with Esperanza and Francisco Mela and Otis Brown and James Weyman, I was playing with Hank Jones. And the music, the energy, and ideas were all crossing into each other. When you play with older cats and very mature improvisers like Hank or McCoy, man it fuels your ideas. Incredibly. You relax into the music you feel – you know you realize you don't have to like push or rush to get to anything because it's all so happening. And then [there's] the energy of the younger folks who are really hungry to play and are on the edge in another kind of way. That whole mix is always there, you know?

THEATERTIMES. And that is something you've experienced all along?

LOVANO Oh yeah. When I was a young cat and first moved to New York I got the gig with the Woody Herman band. I was 23 and I was comfortable playing for him and giving him what he needed. And he gave it back to me and let me stretch out and be who I was and develop in my way. So that cross-generational mix, of not only the music but just the respect and love, is really strong and a part of the whole development. Like Tony Williams had playing with Miles, or Paul Chambers playing with Miles at 19. And, Miles played with Bird when he was 19 or 20. When you're embraced by people that you aspire to, it builds your whole concepts and confidence. And that's beautiful.

[Read Side Note: An Audience with Dexter]

LOVANO. The multi-generation and multi-cultural thing has always been real strong in jazz. That's why the music is so timeless. I mean, dig Wayne Shorter, man, he just turned 80! And I've been playing on and off with McCoy since 1999. First time was with Bobby Hutcherson, Jonathan Moffett, and Billy Higgins as a quintet. Since then I've been doing a lot of quartet stuff with him, including one that was recorded at Yoshi's with Christian McBride on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. It's really a thrill to be around him and play his music in his conceptions and directions.

Collective Connections

For Lovano, being part of the SFJAZZ opening ceremonies was a return to the fold. Since 2004, the non-profit institution for jazz education, preservation, and performance has annually fielded an all-star octet called the SFJAZZ Collective. Each year has focused on a different jazz master, and each member of that year's line-up arranges one of the honoree's compositions. In 2008, Lovano began a three-year run with the group, replacing Founding Artistic Director and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman. He was onboard to celebrate the work of Thelonious Monk, Shorter, and Tyner, respectively.

LOVANO. I loved being in that ensemble for those three seasons. It was fabulous.

THEATERTIMES. What song of Tyner's did you choose?


The tune I did was "Aisha.," which is such a beautiful, incredible song that's rarely played. It was originally on the Coltrane record Olé. I had been playing that with my trio, and had recorded it on Flights of Fancy with Cameron Brown on bass and Idris Muhammad on drums.

'Birth' and Bird

THEATERTIMES. This generational affinity extends to two landmark recordings that you successfully revisited. Talk about the Miles Davis and Charlie Parker projects.

LOVANO. When you live in the music that you studied or grew up with, like the Birth of the Cool, for example, or Charlie Parker's songs, it's part of your history and your personal development as a musician. The whole thing with Birth of the Cool came together as a commission I had from Monterey Jazz Festival around 2001. They were going to do a Miles Davis tribute and asked me to put something together for my nonette, which was booked to play.

Because of my relationship with Gunther Schuller I asked him if he would consider putting something together for me on Birth of the Cool because he was a part of that date. Gunther was amazing. We discussed "Moondreams," "Move, " and "Boplicity," and he put them in a suite form with the interludes, intros, and outros and other things to tie it together with his conception. He arranged Birth of the Cool with the tenor lead instead of trumpet for me, because, remember, there was no tenor on Birth of the Cool, right? It was Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, and Miles and trombone and French horn. And subsequently that led to my recording Streams of Expression with the nonette.

THEATERTIMES. And what about Bird Songs?

LOVANO. Bird Songs came together with Us Five. Our first recording was Folk Art, which was all my compositions. But during the gigs we were always throwing in a Billy Strayhorn or Coltrane tune. We got a gig on Barbados, which started the whole Bird thing because of his tune "Barbados." It's this hip blues tune, played it in kind of a calypso feel in the melody.

So we went to Barbados and I said, Man we have to play this tune! So, I turned it into a ten-bar blues and we keep it in this more Caribbean flavor and man it just took off in a whole hip way. We came back and played the Vanguard and I threw a couple more Charlie Parker things in the set and [Blue Note's] Bruce Lundvall came and heard us. [I suggested] an Us Five recording focusing on Bird, and chose a bunch of tunes and we restructured them and it became real personal exploration on that music.

If the Label Fits

THEATERTIMES. Your relationship with Blue Note has been pretty unusual.

LOVANO. [Laughing] It's amazing! Through the years I've had other offers and opportunities [from labels], but working with Bruce all these years has been amazing. Pretty much all my projects through the years have been all of my ideas. I've produced all my own recordings since 1991 or '90 and had a green light to explore different things. I've had ensembles presenting music internationally and I think that was important too. I'm real excited about future projects and working with Don Was now. He came on board right as Cross Culture was coming together and was real supportive of what I was doing.

THEATERTIMES. What specifically do you see that makes you so optimistic about the multi-cultural and global possibilities?

LOVANO. Well I think that internationally the whole energy around jazz and the conceptions and creative mixing of people is at a really high level. I just did a workshop in Vallekilde, Denmark, outside of Copenhagen, which began in the late '60s. I think Dexter Gordan was one of the first to host a workshop up there, and through the years Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Roy Haynes, and other folks did. The musicians that come are the top players in Denmark and Scandinavia, and they come to it every year as a retreat, and to write new music and meet other players and play together. It's a very creative situation.

Around the world there's lots of stuff like that going on and it's not only creating new audiences, it's creating a lot of opportunities for young cats to play together and also mix in generations. But that's happening all around. And in Boston at Berklee College of Music, I hold the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance, and I'm a part of the global jazz institute within Berklee, which is Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and myself and Terri Lyne and George Garzone. There are others involved but the four of us kind of we lead the same forum, different weeks, and really explore a lot of ways of playing together.

THEATERTIMES. When I spoke with Stefon Harris, he also saw the international melding of sounds as a rich frontier. Subsequently, he recorded and toured with Cuban musicians as part of the 90 Miles project.

LOVANO. Right. And it goes back to what Dizzy did. This isn't something new. New York City has been that kind of melting pot of generations and peoples, like the whole Afro-Cuban thing, all kinds of stuff that jumped off in the modern jazz Bebop period with Diz and everybody. And Machito with Charlie Parker, so much was going on back then that it was a springboard into today. Now, it's like with the new technologies and things it's a small world. Back then you had to be in New York City to really feel all that. And that's why all those players who were here, the Max Roaches and Charles Mingus and Miles and Don Byas and Thad Jones and whoever you name, New York was the center and it was this mix of all kinds of music all the time. And it's always been the new frontier. Some of the things that Dizzy did, with the bass and the drums, with the counter melodies and ostinatos and things that started to emerge from Dizzy's passions about this whole blending you know, Mario Bauza, and others, you know. Arturo O'Farrill, his father Chico O'Farrill, was a pioneer in the collaboration with folks, you know. And that still lives today. I moved to New York in the mid-'70s, and played in all kind of bands with Machito and Mario Bauza and Mel Lewis with Bob Brookmeyer and then joined the Paul Motian band with Bill Frissell in the mid-'80s and all these influences from all these things are churning inside you and around you all the time, and today it's even more. All the schools now, Berklee and NYU and Manhattan School of Music, and Julliiard there are all kinds of young folks coming from the Caribbean, and coming from Korea, and Japan and Asia and the Middle East, some amazing young players from the Middle East and Israel that are in New York and going to these schools and young players that have a whole other ideas and feeling – natural feelings – that are coming through in whole conceptions and approaches in jazz.

Generating Growth

THEATERTIMES And that's the generational transference, you can carry them through.

LOVANO Right, because the music, the strongest music in jazz has always been things that were handed down within the band, how things developed from the leader down throughout the ensemble. And the innovative things that happen in the music happen most of the time as a collective expression. It's your relationships with people. And that's also something that's really important to try and create inner dialogues, to try and create inner music within the music with the people you're playing with.

I really learned that playing with master drummers like Ted Blackwell, and Paul, and Elvin, and Mel. Really master drummers bring that out. If you really dig the groups that Art Blakey lead, and Max Roach led, there's this amazing thing around their leadership and their freeness about how things can develop.

And of course the leader's direction and concepts are like the foundation but when the leader has a free approach to let everybody loose, then the music really sparks. So everybody fuels each other's ideas from your experience and that generational thing, when it happens in a natural way, things grow.


Us Five Folk Art at Festival de Jazz de San Sebastián in 2009


Joe Lovano was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 29, 1952, to Sicilian-American parents. His father, tenorman Tony "Big T" Lovano, taught him all the standards, how to lead a gig, pace a set, and be versatile enough to always find work. Joe started on alto at age six and switched to tenor five years later. John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Stitt were among his earlier influences. After graduating from Euclid High School in 1971, he developed further at Berklee College of Music, where he studied under Herb Pomeroy and Gary Burton.
After Berklee he worked with Jack McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith. After three years with Woody Herman's orchestra, Lovano moved to New York and began playing regularly with Mel Lewis's Big Band. This influence is still present in his solos. He often plays lines that convey the rhythmic drive and punch of an entire horn section.
In the early 1980s Lovano began working in John Scofield's quartet and a bass-less trio with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell. Steeped in the tradition of Ornette Coleman, Motian's recordings show off Lovano's avant-garde abilities. In 1993, at the suggestion of musicologist Gunther Schuller, fellow Clevelander and bebop guitarist Bill DeArango recorded the album Anything Went with Lovano.
Lovano's Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, garnered a Down Beat "Jazz Album of the Year" award. Other releases include Trio Fascination and 52nd Street Themes. In the late 1990s, he formed the Saxophone Summit with Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker (later replaced by Ravi Coltrane). Lovano played the tenor saxophone on the 2007 McCoy Tyner album Quartet. In 2006 Lovano released Streams of Expression, a tribute to cool jazz and free jazz. He did this with the help of Gunther Schuller, who contributed his "Birth of the Cool Suite." Lovano and pianist Hank Jones released an album together in June 2007, entitled Kids.
In 2008 Lovano formed the quintet Us Five with rising star Esperanza Spalding on bass, pianist James Weidman formerly associated with Abbey Lincoln and the M-Base collective, and the two drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III. Their initial album Folk Art was the first to comprise exclusively originals by Lovano, that the band was meant to interpret with intense interaction in the spirit of the avantgarde of the 1960s and the successive loft scene.[4] Although the follow-up was not approached as such (according to Lovano), Bird Songs (2011) was a tribute to Charlie Parker.[5] On Cross Culture, the third subsequent album by Us Five, released in 2013 on Blue Note, the quintet was augmented by West African guitarist Lionel Loueke. Lovano saw the occasion to play a variety of reed and percussion instruments he had been colleting since the late 1970s. "Ubergirl bassist"[6] Spalding is replaced by Peter Slavov for six of the tracks, that were again all written by Lovano, with the exception of Billy Strayhorn's "Star Crossed Lovers". "The idea [...] wasn't just to play at the same time, but to collectively create music within the music," Lovano wrote in the liner notes to Cross Culture. "Everyone is leading and following," and "the double drummer configuration adds this other element of creativity."



Another thing about generations is, [after] you're in folks' audiences for years, all of a sudden they're in yours, and that does something to you. Shortly after I got the gig with Woody we played a festival in Germany and Dexter Gordon's quartet opened for us. Afterwards there was a jam session, and I go up to play and see Dexter sitting right in front. And, man it made me really focus and play with a clarity because I wanted him to . . . you know, I didn't want to chase him out of the room.
The next morning I saw him and he kind of waved his finger at me, like, 'Yeah, oh, yeah, I heard you.' He acknowledged that he was there. And I was 23 or something at the time and it was an amazing realization. It gave me the confidence to try and develop always into tomorrow. That's what it did for me.
Scroll to Top