Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Joe Lovano Investigates Bird

Joe Lovano’s musical curiosity seems endless. Creativity is his credo. No what part of the forest he chooses to investigate, he’s always looking for creativity. It’s what he learned listening to the masters growing up, and playing with many of them over the years.

Now, of course, he is one of today‘s elite jazz musicians, one who‘ll in his autumn years will be hailed as one of those masters. But that’s later. Joe is in the here and now. He’s a dominant musician on the scene right now. Dominant in that he’s seemingly everywhere. Different groups, all excellent. Playing with McCoy Tyner. The SF Jazz Collective. On other relevant albums. But also dominant because his sound and approach are honest. Can’t be denied. They’ve deservedly swashbuckled themselves to the forefront of jazz for this millennium. Done through hard work and the force of sheer musical talent and an unceasing creative drive.

[Photo © R.J. DeLuke, Joe Lovano with Us Five at Newport Jazz Festival, 2009. (Esperanza Spalding on bass)]

He’s at it again with his latest CD, “Birdsongs,” a Charlie Parker tribute carried out with his superlative quintet, Us Five. All the songs are associated, written or inspired by Bird, the genius of the 1940s bebop scene whose music will always be one of the cornerstones of jazz. Lovano is one of the most influential players of his generation, the post-Coltrane era. But unlike a lot of tenor sax players, Lovano’s own roots can be heard going way back before that. He’s done his homework. At a concert two nights ago at The Egg in Albany, Lovano’s was on fire in a quartet with guitarist John Scofield. During the evening you could hear it all. Coleman Hawkins. Sonny Rollins. Trane. Bird. But all Lovano. His sound as robust as his personality, which is rich and full and welcoming. In that respect he’s achieved the ultimate jazz goal: playing and being yourself.

The disk, his 22nd for Blue Note (who he hell does that anymore??), meets the high standards everyone expects from Lovano. Us Five really has developed together as a band.

In a January conversation with Esperanza Spalding, a rising jazz star who also happens to be the bass player for Us Five, she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm for her boss and “Birdsongs.” She was in the midst of a weeklong gig playing that music with the band at the Village Vanguard.

“He did it again. It’s totally incredible. He sounds amazing as always. He’s always getting better. That’s so encouraging. I have the rest of my life to keep working at this,” she told me with palpable awe. “I’ve played with him now for about seven years. I see him and I hear him and I see his evolution as an artist in seven years. And I think to myself, ‘I hope to be like him one day.’ He keeps growing and evolving. Every new project he does is profound and beautiful.”

She added, “If I was going to say one person that really has been a huge source inspiration, it would probably be Joe.”

Even more recently, conversation with Lovano naturally shifted to Us Five. He was happy with the Vanguard gig. “Throughout the week we focused on 15 or so different tunes. Each set was completely different and shaped different. As far as the pieces we played and the flow and orchestration of it all. I’m not treating it like one tune at a time. I’m trying to put a set together that is an orchestration of the music within the structure of the set, which adds another element to the presentation.”

He reflected on Bird. “Drawing from the compositions and tunes Charlie Parker wrote and played. It’s such an inspiration. His tunes are standards in the jazz repertoire. To try to re-work them and shape them to how we play today … it’s a really rich environment to be in.”

Lovano listened to the music growing up. His father, noted Cleveland saxman Tony “Big T” Lovano, had all the records. Siren songs for so many jazz folk. “That was the language and vocabulary that really taught me a lot about my instrument. About music. And how to play with people,” said Joe.

“I never dreamt I would put a project together and focus on his compositions. But it was something that kind of evolved for me. It was beautiful. Especially with this band (Us Five) … We’ve been playing together over the last three or four years now. We primarily, started playing most of my original tunes. The throughout those years, including Billy Strayhorn’s music and Thelonious Monk’s music and Coltrane’s music, Miles’ tunes. Now Bird. Whatever the repertoire, there’s a personality and a way of playing that we’re developing within the structures of the tunes.

“To do a total focus on just Charlie Parker tunes was really fun. Very creative.”

The group is off to Europe in March but comes back to the States in April for more touring.

I’m not going to run through the CD … this is good, that’s good. Check it out. The music is today’s jazz at its best. Re-worked according to Lovano’s intuition and brought to life by a band sensitive to that vision.

Said Lovano, “Whether you’re listening to Ben Webster or Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson, people that are themselves within whatever song structure they’re playing on. You live with the elements of the music, then the repertoire that you love to play, that fuels your ideas just grows and grows throughout your lifetime. Classic music that in undeniably timeless. Beautiful harmonic structures and forms and melodies … you develop in a certain way, that if you didn’t experience those things, you wouldn’t become the musician that you could be.”

Let’s leave it at that.

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