A sweet, thick layer of sax goes a long way over many years, and Joe Lovano and his tenor have trekked mountains, cities and countrysides. Recently he’s found himself at ECM Records with his newest work, “Trio Tapestry,” where there is mist and mystery, skin-tingling pathos and dancing on the edges of love.
Forming a sparse group of musicians that can nevertheless fill in all the necessary spaces (and also leave room in the right parts), Lovano joins Marilyn Crispelli (piano) and Carmen Castaldi on drums. Songs like the ethereal “Seeds of Change” play with a subtly shifting balance among piano, drums and sax. The note-bending gong and insistent cymbals in “Gong Episode” gets injected with Lovano’s substantial tenor that talks its way through a story. Sweeter and lighter, “Tarrassa” is snaked through with separate musical ideas veering off, the common element among the trio being Lovano’s invention of highlighting all 12 notes of the scale. A much faster piece, “Smiling Dog,” careens forward, each musician contributing a separate, valuable part of the melodic conversation.
Understated yet clearly in sharp focus, Joe Lovano’s sax is emotional, deep, inquisitive and generous.
Is “Trio Tapestry” a new way of looking at being lyrical?
As an improvisor I’m trying to develop an approach by singing through my horn. I’m playing with interpretations of themes within the harmonic spectrum and free rhythmic articulation.
This recording is a tapestry of melody, harmony and rhythm. The way we weave together is how we work together.
Try to focus on the song you’re in. Shape your solo with an attitude of what the song is telling you, not just chords and tempo. To play with an interpretation and with idea of a 12-tone flowing melodic approach lends itself to being lyrical and for me, allowing me to sing through the sax..
Does it meet your expectations?
This particular trio with Marilyn and Carmen definitely went beyond my expectations because everybody played with such a beautiful approach. He’s playing piano on drums. She is playing rhythm and punctuation like a drummer or horn player. I’m trying to encompass polyrhythmic possibilities like a drummer, with the piano sharing the space in a very beautiful way. That was the idea of having a trio without a bass because the bass sometimes dictates the momentum.
I wanted to have an openness in the band. I put myself where the bass would be. That feeling like when Scott Lafaro plays solo, open and free-flowing.
It’s your first time as a leader for the ECM label. What does that mean to you?
It’s a beautiful moment for me to arrive at this place, on the label’s 50th year anniversary.
I had three consecutive seven-record deals with Blue Note starting in 1991. My last release in 2015 was with Hank Jones as a quartet.
Since 1981 I recorded with the Paul Motian Band and Trio for Manfred Eicher, so we’ve had a relationship all these years. I recorded quite a few with John Abercrombie, Mark Johnson, Eliane Elias, Steve Kuhn, and have been on some for me some very important records in my recording career. Bruce Lundvall gave me a green light to do dates as a sideman outside of my Blue Note sessions as a leader. He knew I was playing in all these different settings in a real creative way and he dug it that I was on the scene in that way. And I fulfilled my last obligation with Blue Note.
After a certain amount of time Manfred and I hooked up. I’m starting a new chapter and it feels really great. Manfred has great ears and is a master in the studio, engineering, in post-production, and so on. He’s very hands-on and a thrill to work with.
Do you consider yourself a jazz icon?
I feel really proud and overwhelmed and overjoyed with what’s happened with me through the years, being known and collaborating with all kind s of folks around the world. The more you do, the more things happen for you.
I feel like I’m scratching the surface too, especially today losing so many folks. Their music is timeless. It’s a blessing to live in the world of music and to share the music is a blessing.
I don’t really consider myself an icon. I know people are listening and that feels good.
Is jazz a moving target? Does the genre keep splintering off or are subgenre categories not relevant anymore?
I look at it this way- the heart of it is improvising so it isn’t about any style. It’s about creating music and it doesn’t matter what the beat is, it’s about your personal expression. The deeper you can express yourself in a spiritual way, it’s beautiful. It’s all about the universe and how it all flows together.
What do you LOVE about the sax?
I was really fortunate. My dad was a beautiful expressive sax player. From Cleveland, Ohio. He was born 1925, the same generation as Coltrane, so he grew up hearing him and following his career.
I grew up hearing the sax not only on records but with my dad playing sax, trying reeds, getting ready to go on gigs. I felt his passion and it was something I had to do. Before I knew it, I had horns as a kid.
He showed me how to make a sound on the neck even before I put it on the horn. When I created a sound that filled the room, I was captured. Especially when I listened to him. And all of a sudden playing that same note or same interval totally captured everything for me. It snowballed into trying to speak the language of music. I learned by ear; I started to memorize things and develop a memory. As I played in different keys, I realized there were 12 keys and what that was all about, all the different colors of each key.
Describe the feeling of being in a rehearsal or performing and everybody is just burning it up.
It’s the sound of joy. When everybody is listening and paying attention to each other, you feel others react to it and that gives you an idea you react to. It’s an amazing place to be. I go into the cosmos. You can’t really describe that, it’s all about listening and feeling each other’s feelings as you swing and groove together. It takes you to another spiritual place.
It’s a timeless place. You’re off the ground you are flying and you are not alone because it’s a collective journey.
Your favorite collaboration of all time, if you had to choose one?
One that stands out is putting Hank Jones, George Mraz and Paul Motian together and exploring some of my music. Having those cats together was really something.
Other collabs through the years that were substantial moments were with Gunther Schuller on “Rush Hour” when he wrote for voice with the woodwinds and strings; that was really special. I grew up knowing about him and meeting him in the early 1970s when he was the New England Conservatory of Music president. Having his embrace through the years gave me a lot of confidence and trust.
Also my association with Berklee College of Music has been pivotal. I went there in ’71 and ’72. That’s when I met John Scofield, Joey Baron, Bill Frisell and all kinds of folks that I play with today. I’m also holding the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance (my first day was on 9/11 in 2001). These days at Berklee, I’m a part of The Global Jazz Institute along with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Garzone and Kenny Werner.
To share the blessings for me is what it’s all about. I just addressed a forum of 30 students representing 13 countries. It was amazing. Everybody brings the feelings and sounds of where they’re from – Venezuela, Italy, Spain, the Middle East, Korea, the US, etc. The music comes from everyone’s life experiences, heart and soul. We’re studying the World of Music and I’m really proud of that!
For more information, visit www.joelovano.com.