An Interview with
by Fred Jung
Never comfortable with standing still or retreating backwards, reedman Joe Lovano has been in constant pursuit to develop and perfect his own voice and his own music, to give the audience variety and to avoid stereotypes and conventional categories. He has become the tenor saxophonist of our time and has proven to be a success both critically and commercially, while still maintaining his high standards of integrity. I had a chance to sit down with this innovator to discuss his music, his life, and his future…
JazzUSA: How did you come to play jazz?
JL: My dad was a saxophone player. He grew up in the bebop generation and heard Charlie Parker play live and heard Lester Young, and was a beautiful musician in his own right, around the Cleveland, Ohio area. I’ve just seen hi laying my whole life. I hard the music from the very beginning. By the time I was a teenager, I was able to go to rehearsals with him and hear his group play, and before I knew it, I was starting to learn the same tunes I was hearing them play, and was able to start to sit in and I gained experience playing with musicians from his generation. That’s who really taught me how to play.
JazzUSA: You have worked with John Scofield. How much of an influence was he on your career and how did playing with him aid in you development?
JL: John and I are the same generation and we kind of grew up together. We first met in Boston at the Berklee School of Music in the early seventies. We started playing together, back then, experiencing music at the same time. Through the years, we both really have grown in concepts and different directions. It was a beautiful meeting when we got back together in the late eighties. Through the years, from the early seventies, we’ve played a lot together in different musical situations. When we came together in John’s quartet, I mean, John had had such vast experiences playing with Miles [Davis] and others and I’ve had a lot of experience playing with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, in freer concepts, and our concept really fused together so to speak, and the quartet really had a direction.
JazzUSA: You have been such a prolific performer and recorder in the nineties, and yet you have maintained a very high level of consistency. What do you attribute to that?
JL: I think from early on it was a real conceptual development about learning how to play with freedom and expression, and trying to be the kind of musician that comes from an egoless place and try to shape music with who you play with at the moment. Whatever situation you’re in. That’s what improvisation really is. If you can come from that place, then the challenge is to relax and focus. I try. The thing for me that’s always been the kind of music that I had inspiration from hearing others play and putting myself in situations that were creative, not stifling. A lot of bands that you play in you just have to play your part and go home. I’ve never played in too many bands like that. I’ve been very fortunate to go for the kinds of gigs that were open, to be creative, and to try to develop my own sound and voice. Learning from the masters on the stand is a lot different than learning from the masters off a record. I’ve had a chance to play with really the greatest players in history and it’s really taught me a lot about empathy and concepts.
JazzUSA: How do you feel about the critical acclaim and recognition you have been receiving?
JL: Proud that the people are taking notice of some creative music and gives me a lot of confidence for the future.
JazzUSA: You are an advocate of developing and playing original music. It actually seems to have rubbed off on former students of yours, like Dave Douglas. How important is composing to you at this stage of your career?
JL: Dave came to my studio and studied for a short time. We both studied together. I feel that I’m a student myself and it’s about sharing ideas. At the time when Dave came, he was going to NYU, it was in the mid-eighties, like eight- four, eighty-five, and he was the first non-saxophone player to come to my pad for lessons I was giving at NYU. His very first day there, he was very deep into the music and into the trumpet and we had beautiful communication right from the start. So I treat each student or each encounter with someone like that as a special time and try to nurture what you already have and explore the future. Dave’s a really beautiful musician and very expressive and a lot of direction and we’ve studied in a lot of directions when we’re together.
JL: Of course, my dad was my first major influence, because of his sound and I heard him playing in the house. He shook the walls when he took his horn out. He was playing in a lot of clubs around Cleveland, some of the same clubs where Sonny Stitt would come or James Moody, Roland Kirk, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie. I had a chance to go and hear all of them while I was still in high school. I would say they were my major influences that I heard live. Sonny Stitt. Moody, the way he played alto and flute. Rashaan, switching horns, just the whole presentation was just incredible. I would say they were my first major influences live. Of ocurse, I loved [John] Coltrane’s music and Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman’s music, before I ever heard them. I never got a chance to hear Coltrane, but my dad heard him though.
JazzUSA: What is your musical philosophy?
JL: To be relaxed and free to explore material and to try to be creative with the personnel, who I’m playing with. The other day I played with Ron Carter and Billy Higgins on a recording of Cyrus Chestnut’s next record, and I mean the rhythm section was so beautiful and magical in a certain way, in a certain direction that you have to be into. Now, if Jack DeJohnette was on drums with Ron, that same tune, the same session would have been a whole other attitude. I would have had a totally different approach to the same tune because of who’s playing. I’m trying to live in that world, so each time I play with specific, different personnel, I can shape the music in a free way that is special to moment.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your latest release on Blue Note, a duo album with Gonzalo Rubalcaba entitled “Flying Colors.” Perfect case in point about being creative when playing the music together, not so much what to play, but more how to play.
JL: Gonzalo and I first met when I went to Havana with Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, back in eighty-six or eighty-seven. That’s when I first met Gonzalo and through the years I have been hearing him, he’s been recording on Blue Note Records as well. We were both nominated for a Grammy, his for I think “Rapsodia,” and mine for “Tenor Legacy.” We were hanging out together out in California and started talking about playing a quartet. Something that would be special to both of us and we decided the duet situation would be great, and we played four nights at Yoshi’s club in California and that kind of sparked the music for us. We start touring in April.
JazzUSA: You play a straight tenor saxophone on the album. For those who are not familiar with the new instrument, describe the sound and the difference from a regular tenor saxophone
JL: I am helping design the new instrument. It’s a new instrument and without the bell, without the curved bell, there’s no resistance in the horn, so it takes all the air you can put through it. Sound just pours out of all the keys. There’s a lot of power and a real different tonal color. it’s not as bright and edgy as a regular curved tenor. It has a thick sound and it’s in new stages. It’s just developing now. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’ve been recording on it a little bit. I did record all the tenor tracks on “Flying Colors” with a straight tenor.
JazzUSA: As an educator, what is the most important aspect or value you try and instill on your students?
JL: I was on the faculty at NYU and William Patterson College, eighty-three and ninety, ninety-one, and since then I have mainly been doing master classes. I think the most important think for all musicians, whatever instrument you play, is to try and tackle and master it. To really explore all of the other instruments around you. As a saxophone player, please study piano players, bass players, study drummers, study trumpet players. It’s how I learned how to fit in with all those musicians, whatever instrument they’re on, to study musicians on other instruments so they could know how to play with somebody. You just don’t play by yourself. Too many cats today practice out of pattern books and they just play by themselves, and then all of a sudden then they’re trying to play with other people when they get in a group and all they’re doing is repeating what they practiced, but you have to really get inside all these other sounds around you and get into the music. You have to know what the drummer’s playing. You got to know which piano player, just by hearing a sound.
JazzUSA: What would you like audiences to take away from your music?
JL: I would like them to come into the music with an open mind and to be able to come into a concert wanting to experience something, instead of just being played at. I would like for them to come into the music with a real free attitude saying, “Yeah. Play for us! Let me hear something I haven’t heard before.” Then I would like them to walk away, hopefully with a reaction of joy. A joyous feeling. I know when I go hear cats play that really turn me on, I’m inspired to go and practice, groove, and go outside and dig the vibe. I can only speak about what music does to me when I hear jazz, and what turns me on.
JazzUSA: How much of an asset is it being married to a musician, your wife, vocalist Judi Silvano?
JL: With her in particular, she is like an incredible musician and really deeply into so many kinds of music, it’s great. It ‘s really inspiring ’cause we’re turning each other on to all kinds of different concepts in music all the time. Plus, we’re playing together in some situations and actually exploring music together. It’s beautiful. It’s a rare thing to be able to come together like that with your mate and be creative in a creative role, not just in a commercial role.
JazzUSA: What do you do to wind down?
JL: I love to go for walks. I’m really into nature and I love being outdoors. I play golf. I love the ocean and lakes. You’ve got to get out there. The music is a gift and a release of all the inspiration that comes from nature.
JazzUSA: At this stage in your career, do you prefer playing in intimate clubs or in larger concert venues?
JL: I just like to play. Every venue has its own attributes. Every venue has its own sound and feeling so I want to try to not walk into a room and say, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to play here.” I want to play the music that we’re playing wherever we are. My favorite places to play are opera houses in Italy or in France or in Spain.
JazzUSA: Why an opera house?
JL: Because it’s the most amazing sound. You walk on that stage, and the way the balconies are and the whole feeling of an opera house style room, like Carnegie Hall, is except it’s a little bigger. Some opera houses are maybe seven hundred or eight hundred seaters.
JazzUSA: Are there any musicians that you would like to work with?
JL: I would like to play with cats I’ve played with, more. Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones. I just did a trio record with Dave and Elvin, actually, that’s coming out in September, my next record. I’d love to play something with Steve Lacy sometime. I’d like to play with Keith Jarrett.
JazzUSA: What’s next for you?
JL: The trio album with Dave and Elvin. That’s going to be coming out. I’ll be doing trio concerts this fall, and into next year, hopefully with them a couple of special nights. This year, I’ve done a couple of real interesting things. One little tour with the String Trio of New York with James Emery on guitar, John Lindberg on bass. I’m going to tour in Japan with Ray Brown as a guest with his trio in the fall. I going be touring with Gonzalo. I want to explore the music I’ve been recording and try to develop on it more, instead of just making a record and moving on to the next. I’ve been really trying to present the music from my recordings. I have an ensemble that features Judi and Erik Friedlander on cello. We’re touring, we have some gigs coming up. I have a quartet with Kenny Werner on piano, Dennis Irwin on bass, and Yoron Israel on drums. We’ve been playing a lot too. We’re doing quartet gigs. I have a couple different groups with different repertoire that I’m focusing on. It’s beautiful.
JazzUSA: If you were not playing jazz, what would you be doing?
JazzUSA: If you were not playing woodwind instruments, what would you like to play?
JL: Probably the drums. I would focus totally on the drums. I’ve been playing drums all my life. I feel a total connection with playing the drums.
JazzUSA: Favorite standards?
JL: “How High Is the Moon.” “Body and Soul.” “Stella By Starlight.” “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
JazzUSA: How is the state of jazz to you today?
JL: In the educational world, it’s at the highest level it’s ever been. It’s an open, international scene today for performance. Jazz today is the total of the history of jazz. We live today among our peers. We play on the scene with our peers. We live with the whole history of the music. Especially today, with all the reissues that are coming out, the box sets, the classic recordings of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, everybody that’s recorded and had a voice that was in the history of jazz. New releases are coming out today of all the masters right along with us. I think that’s kind of a bizarre, wild period right now. We’re not dealing with our peers the way they only dealt with their peers. They didn’t have to deal with all these reissues coming back. We not only have to deal with all of our peers on the level of everyone today, but we have to deal the history and the classic music of the past. There’s a lot of challenge there to find your own music and on your own, stand tall among all this history of jazz. It’s a very big, challenging point here for these young artists.