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Joe Lovano

I’m excited to interview Joe Lovano about his impressive 18th Blue Note CD--recorded by James Farber on Blue Note Records at Avatar Studios in New York--in which his producing, composing, conducting, as well as tenor saxophone, alto clarinet and aulochrome talents are displayed. This saxophone giant features a lot of his friends on the "Streams of Expression" CD, out this summer of 2006. It was one of pianist John Hicks’ last recording sessions, and Lovano reminisces about Hicks in this interview. Lovano also discusses his admiration for all-around musical genius Gunther Schuller, who had a big part in this new CD.

Jazz history comes alive in "Streams of Expression," and the musical contributors to this CD not only include Lovano, Schuller and Hicks, but also Steve Slagle, Tim Hagans, Barry Ries, Larry Farrell, George Garzone, Ralph Lalama, Gary Smulyan, Dennis Irwin, James Weidman, Michael Parloff, Charles Russo, and Lewis Nash. His aim in this CD was for everyone to "play in a flowing approach I really try to draw on where I’ve been, and the people I have played with are very special to me," said Lovano in this interview. He compares his conducting style with his friends to somewhat that of Schuller, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans. "The world of music is a blessing." I called him to chat. Ours is one of three interviews he had on this afternoon.

It was a joy talking with Joe Lovano, who is as warm on the telephone as the warmth coming through on his instruments. He truly loves people and was quick to say that the good relations he has with his friends shape his music. Here is the conversation:

JazzReview: Hi Joe. I’m Carla here in New York City.

Joe Lovano: Hi Carla. How are you doing? So you’re from And have you been checking out the recordings?

JazzReview: I sure have. Tell us about the latest one?

Joe Lovano: It came out organic and free. My piece "Streams of Expressions Suite" is a five-movement piece to frame "The Birth of the Cool Suite." So I tried to write something to frame that in a way where it was a flowing stream of ideas in my ensemble; and each voice is heard a number of times during the recording. Each voice really contributes, and each player contributes their ideas a number of times. Each person appears and reappears various times.

JazzReview: It’s a pleasure to ask you some questions about your new "Streams of Expression" CD. You have said Gunther Schuller, who composed the "Birth of the Cool Suite," is a "treasure chest of wisdom and knowledge." We’d love to know more about the wisdom you learned from Mr. Schuller. He’s a pretty amazing man. What did you learn?

Joe Lovano: He sure is, and originally the whole idea of "The Birth of the Cool Suite" came from a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was in 2001 for Miles Davis’ 75th anniversary year, and we did it as a tribute to Miles, in a certain way. So I thought about the commission and called Gunther--we have a good, deep relationship--and he agreed to work on the project. He was the member of the original "Birth of the Cool" record with Miles Davis and arranged "Moon Dreams." He also recorded with Miles and those cats for the original session. Gunther played the French horn and conducted on that landmark 1949 recording, "Birth of the Cool," so he was a natural choice to arrange, conduct, and compose for the suite on my CD. I’m thrilled to have his trust and confidence in my life. Working with him is a highlight of my career. I basically gave him the commission to write a piece for my ensemble. It’s a different ensemble in its instrumentation. There was no tenor sax on the original Miles record; just that alone gave it a different sonority. We choose "Moon Dreams," "Move" and "Boplicity." Those three titles from the original record, and Gunther put them into a suite form, which had never been done--with interludes and postludes and prelude. And then I wrote "Streams of Expression" to frame that.

JazzReview: "Streams," the first movement on the CD must surely be inspired by Gunther and the Third Stream movement. I hear some folk elements, jazz and contemporary sounds. Does that set the stage for the rest of the CD?

Joe Lovano: Exactly. It does, and I’ll explain. Gunther’s whole innovative movement in the world of music inspired me. But Gunther didn’t play like I did on those innovations he came up with. I’m a player. His influence on me comes in a different way. I’m trying to be expressive on my instrument and conduct as I’m improvising. So I’m conducting with the melodies and the rhythms that I play. And so it’s a very organic way. It’s a lot like Charles Mingus played, cuing people in from what you play and how you play it rather than standing in front of a band, conducting and pointing.

JazzReview: Kind of like I’ve seen your wife Judi do when she sings? I saw her perform, and I’ve seen you play a number of times over the years.

Joe Lovano: Yes. I like that kind of conducting because I want a band that plays with a flowing approach. Even the title of this CD gives you a conception about the flowing streams of ideas that can happen within a band.

JazzReview: I’m sure Gunther enjoyed you and learned a lot from you, too. Did he make comments on your talent as well in the project?

Joe Lovano: You mean Gunther? Well, yes he did. We’ve known each other since the early ‘70s. I’ve done projects under his leadership, and he’s worked with me on the recording of "Rush Hour," a Grammy-nominated project on Blue Note from1995. He wrote some beautiful orchestrations for that recording of mine. In that recording, we focused on some composers, such as Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus as well as Gunther’s original compositions and mine. The thing about working with Gunther that is so great is that he was on the scene with all those players and contributed to their music as well. He was very close with Mingus, Ellington and Monk. To do this project with him now--the "Birth of the Cool"-is so perfect because he was close with Gil Evans, John Lewis and Miles. His career has spanned all these beautiful periods in jazz and creative music.

JazzReview: Do you think at some time you will have more collaboration with him?

Joe Lovano: Well, I mean, everything you do leads into tomorrow. Each step of the way had been a springboard into this moment, and I’m sure this will be a springboard into the future. To live in the world of music is a blessing and especially to realize that the timelessness of this art form lives on everyday.

JazzReview: I noticed "The Birth of the Cool Suite" is placed in the middle of the CD, beginning and ending with parts of the "Streams of Expression Suite." Describe how you organized the CD?

Joe Lovano: The sequence of the recording was planned once we had the "Birth of the Cool Suite." I wrote my piece, "Streams of Expression," to frame that. In writing my piece, I was trying to address what "Birth of the Cool" give rise to in my world. It gave birth to all of the music that followed: all the creative music. And I was trying to address some of those issues in my piece. Let’s say the "Blue Sketches" reflects Miles music that led into the "Kind of Blue" record period that led into Coltrane's explorations in "Impressions." "Enchantment, the third movement of my piece, reflects Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. The movement "Second Nature" reflects the free flowing ideas of Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Dewey Redman, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and others. It’s just ‘second nature’ for them to improvise like that. That’s what’s inspired me to develop into the improviser I’m trying to be today.

JazzReview: You have dedicated the "Birth of the Cool" to Gil Evans, John Lewis and Miles Davis. Give us some personal reflections each of them.

Joe Lovano: Well, Gunther Schuller wrote that in dedication to them. This year marks my 30th year anniversary in New York. I moved here in 1976. Gil Evans was around New York then. And I had a chance to hear his band and play with a lot of players who played with him and his band. In Europe, I had a chance to meet him and be on a few concerts with him in a different band on the same programs at the jazz festivals. It was amazing to notice how carefree he conducted his bands, letting the musicians create the music within his orchestration. It was a beautiful experience to be in a room with him as a leader, as a conductor and as composer, yet seeing him give the band so much freedom. That was an influence to me just how I wanted to have a band, and my ensemble came from that inspiration. It has been a lot the way Charles Mingus led his larger ensemble. You have to have a lot of trust within your ensemble to give your players freedom to shape their music.

JazzReview: And your thoughts on John Lewis?

Joe Lovano: The first time I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet I was in high school, and they played on a concert with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet. And it was one of the first formal concerts I had been to at Severance Hall in Cleveland, the "Carnegie Hall" of Cleveland and the home of the Cleveland Orchestra. It made a deep impression on me how beautiful this music was and how elegant this music was presented with the quartet, including Milt Jackson and John Lewis. Their presentation really lives on in my history and inspiration. I was a kid then and now those impressions are still really strong with me, especially when I am playing with the great Hank Jones, one of great jazz pianists of all time in modern jazz. It really touches on those feelings. Hank is from that era, the elegance and presentation.

JazzReview: And Miles Davis?

Joe Lovano: Miles Davis’ whole career has inspired me since I was a kid, through every recording in my lifetime. My dad was a saxophonist around Cleveland and played with Tadd Dameron and was one of the major players around Cleveland. He was around the same age as Miles. He was a great record collector. I grew up listening to them, those records, and listening to Miles and focusing a lot on Miles as a young player. The first time I heard Miles live was in 1972 and the recording "Live Evil" with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette and Garth Bartz. This was the recording after "Bitches Brew," and it was some of the most amazing music I ever heard live. Very free and explosive. All of the different periods of Miles were and are very inspiring: his sound, his music and the way he led a band. [We talked about our memories of when each of us heard Miles Davis perform in New York.].

JazzReview: In "The Fire Prophets," the last movement of your "Streams of Expression Suite," you play an unusual instrument, the Aulochrome. How unusual is it?

Joe Lovano: Well it’s a double soprano that’s made into one instrument. So it’s the first polyphonic woodwind instrument made, and you can play any interval from any note. You can harmonize within the instrument. Each key has a top and a bottom side to it so you can control the tonality on either horn. This is the first instrument that’s made like this, and it was made by a colleague in Belgium.

JazzReview: "The Fire Prophets" is the most avant-garde piece on the new CD and it sounds like late period John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. Who else influenced you here?

Joe Lovano: It is influenced by the later Coltrane and the way he led a large ensemble influenced by the recordings of "Meditations" and "Ascension" as well as by Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. That’s what they were called at the time, "the fire prophets." That’s how the music was described by the writer Amiri Baraka, as LeRoi Jones who spoke about the "fire prophets," and how explosive that music was. And Max Roach’s music was that way, too. There was a lot of energy in the music that was happening at the time, and this one piece kind of gives a picture of that. This is where I introduce the horn, the aulochrome. And then my piece, "Big Ben," at the end of the CD, is a trio version where I also play aulochrome. You can really hear how I harmonize within my lines, throughout my choruses and what’s in the blues. It was originally written for a concert I did in Copenhagen with Hank Jones in celebration of Ben Webster. And also it reflects on Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing more than one instrument at the same time. He was executing ideas on more than one horn. My instrument was made as one instrument, a direct link of what he was trying to do on his saxophones--and what he did. He was one of the fire prophets too.

JazzReview: You featured Lewis Nash and John Hicks here in this piece of the CD. Describe their contributions.

Joe Lovano: Well, throughout the whole recording I feature my friends. My ensemble is an amazing blend of musicians from throughout my lifetime. John Hicks was a part of my ensemble from the beginning. I tried to feature everyone throughout the recording a number of times. This is not just a Joe Lovano recording. You hear everybody’s contributions a number of times. I’m not the only soloist. That helped shaped my orchestrations--having that kind of approach as a bandleader--which is how Miles Davis led all of his bands.

JazzReview: Could you talk about your relationship with John Hicks, who we just lost this past year?

Joe Lovano: Wow, well we played at the funeral service for John.

JazzReview: I heard you. I was there. It was really beautiful.

Joe Lovano: Thanks. We played the second movement of my piece from this new CD. We played "Cool." It was one of John’s last recording dates. I knew John when I first moved to New York. We lived next door to each other on 23rd Street. I heard him play with so many great people: Pharaoh Sanders, Betty Carter David Murray’s early groups and others. I had a chance to play with John a number of times at Bradley’s, that famous place in New York, in trio settings with Walter Booker on bass or David Williams on bass. That led us to play quartet gigs together, and he had a chance to be in my nonet when I formed it in 1999. That’s the same rhythm section on this recording. We played together for years and he was one of the most inspired players on the New York scene. [Joe chuckled.] He called the spirits on everything he played. He had just a very deep approach to music and could play in all styles in a way. When John graced the stage, he brought the level of the band up to another place. He was one of the few pianists who could play with equal weight with any drummer and hit a groove like no one else, man.

JazzReview: That’s right. He had a nice personality, too. I met him once at a summer Jazzmobile concert by the water on the Upper West Side of New York last year. He was one to remember. He was so warm and friendly.

Joe Lovano: Yes, he was. He was one of the most loving people on the scene, a very generous cat, very generous, warm and beautiful.

JazzReview: I saw you included several non-suite compositions on your CD. What is the connection with "Blue Sketches" as well as the tune "Buckeyes?"

Joe Lovano: "Buckeyes," written by Tim Hagans, who is one of the trumpet players on the original "52nd Street Themes," the first record for the nonet which won a Grammy in 2000. Tim wrote this tune called "Buckeyes." We’re both from Ohio and it’s kind of in celebration of our Ohio roots. He wrote that for full big band and he scaled it down for this recording for my ensemble. "Blue Sketches" was influenced by a Miles tune "So What" from "Kind of Blue," which led into John Coltrane’s piece "Impressions." It’s a kind of a combination of influences of Miles and Coltrane on me. The form is coming from those tunes within exploration of a new harmonic sequence inspired from those players.

JazzReview: You have stated that you are in all periods of jazz. How does that work? Is that how you keep jazz timeless?

Joe Lovano: Well, for me it's all about realizing and embracing the history and each player’s contribution through jazz. The players who influenced me lived the music and speak the truth in their playing. And I’m trying to be that kind of player today. You have to draw from your history without trying to live in someone else’s shoes. You have to be yourself in your sound and in your approach, and understanding the history of music gives you a lot of foundation to build.

JazzReview: The CD features a lot of your friends: tell us about them?

Joe Lovano: It was my inspiration to put a band together with other horn players with whom I had a relationship when I formed my nonet. I’ve had relationships with everyone, each member of my nonet: people like Steve Slagle, George Garzone and Ralph LaLama, we go back to the early '70’s before New York. I want a group that's composed of where we come from, where we have the same influences, the same sensibilities. I like to write music where we’ve been and where we are today in the music.

JazzReview: You enjoy featuring the other players. Does that give you pleasure to hear their solos?

Joe Lovano: We feed off each other, yeah. Why did Coltrane have Eric Dolphy in his band at that time? He was inspired so they could feed off each other. I like to have other horn players around me to take the music some other places. I like to use players that have their personality in their playing. They don’t sound like someone else.

JazzReview: Did I hear a bird?

Joe Lovano: Yeah, I think you did. We’re in the woods. I live up in the Hudson River Valley. It’s beautiful. Well, one thing having about having an ensemble like this is a link to the different bands I’ve been in: the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, the Carla Bley Band, and the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra. Those larger groups I’ve been a part of have given me the confidence to put together a large ensemble like this and to live in the world of music...not just in one style or another. And this recording really reflects that world of music I live in.

JazzReview: You approach your music with such a personal, unified sound, whether it’s in a quartet or duo, such as you did with piano legend Hank Jones, or in the trio with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, or when you play bebop or free and in a large ensemble. How do you manage this?

Joe Lovano: I’m just trying to be who I am and live the truth in my sound and in my music. I’m the same person no matter what my surroundings are. I don’t play free jazz. I play jazz free. You see what I’m saying. That’s something I’m realizing more and more nowadays. That’s how I’m studying music. That’s how I keep my focus whether I’m playing with Hank Jones or Bill Frisell.

JazzReview: I’ve come to realize that your uniqueness is consistent no matter what the instrument. You probably practice on all of the horns. Is everything essentially you then?

Joe Lovano: Yeah. I feel like the tenor saxophone is my main voice, but I play and practice on a lot of woodwind instruments, folk instruments, wood flutes and different sounds, and it really gives me a lot of ideas when I go back to my home base instrument, which is the tenor saxophone. But I learn a lot playing a lot of instruments. I also play the koto, a Japanese harp, a stringed instrument. I explore a lot of percussion instruments and gongs and things all the time.

JazzReview: It must be great performing all over the world. Do you ever buy musical instruments from different places?

Joe Lovano: I’ve collected a large array of instruments from around the world, from Africa, the Middle East, South America, from all over North America, and from Asia. My international schedule allows me to embrace different music from around the world and I’ve had a chance to collaborate in all kinds of settings and it influenced my music.

JazzReview: Do you have some new ideas involving your travel and music?

Joe Lovano: I’m working on some future projects that will embrace all these folk elements in the music. Elements from folk music around the world, which I have touched on in recordings, "Rush Hour," "Universal Language" and "Viva Caruso" folk elements and what I call my street band, with voice, woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings creating music with different kinds of sounds and feelings. I really try to draw from where I’ve been and create new music all the time from my history. The people you play with are very special to me. The relations with the people shape the music. That creates my new music all the time. We covered a lot of ground in this interview.

JazzReview: I wanted to tell you that I once was at your loft at a party when you lived in the city. It was so much fun. Good food. Good music.

Joe Lovano: I’m glad you enjoyed it. Everybody I played with in my life came. I lived at 206 23rd Street, and John Hicks at 208 W. 23rd Street. Vanguard Studios were in 208, right next door, too. And I lived there with my wife Judi Silvano at the loft from 1978 to 1998. We spent 20 years there. It was a real workshop space. It was definitely on the scene. A lot of things happened there. You could mention we are going to play at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan the week of Thanksgiving with the nonet, appearing with "Streams of Expression" in a CD release party. It will be the Joe Lovano Ensemble. We’ll be celebrating in New York.

JazzReview: What does your schedule look like before the Vanguard gig?

Joe Lovano: We’ll be touring Europe a lot before the Vanguard. I hope people look on my Website. We’ll be at the Chicago Jazz Festival Sept.2nd and Sept. 1st I’ll be playing in Easton, Pa, and we’ll be in Europe late October and November.

JazzReview: Best wishes. And thank you so much for the interview.

Joe Lovano: You’re very welcome. It was good to talk with you.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Joe Lovano
  • Interview Date: 7/1/2006
  • Subtitle: Streams of Expression
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