In conversation with joe lovano
Folk Art, Joe Lovano's latest release on Blue Note with his band Us Five, is the tenor saxophonist's twenty-first album for the label. It's also the first time Lovano has made an entire album comprising his own compositions. In so doing, he continues a tradition begun by Blue Note's founding fathers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who, as Lovano points out, made a practice of helping the label's artists realize their original compositions. "They gave these incredible players the green light," says Lovano. "[They] gave them the forum and outlet to record, and opened the door [for them] to develop as composers. It certainly happened for me. Carrying-on in that tradition of being a player/composer is the legacy of Blue Note." Lovano knows as well as anybody, given his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz history.
This thoroughgoing awareness of jazz tradition is also reflected in his playing. As his one-time collaborator, the late pianist John Hicks, once pointed out in the pages of The New York Times: "He plays modern ideas, but his sound encompasses the entire history of the tenor sax." The very richness of that history is embodied in his playing and has endeared Lovano to musicians and fans alike, who recognize him as one of the great tenor saxophonists in jazz. As Gunther Schuller—who composed and arranged three pieces for Lovano's classic Blue Note album Rush Hour—says in the liner notes, "Whether in mainstream be-bop or free jazz, whether couched in ‘tonal' changes or free association ‘atonality,' Joe immediately and effortlessly heard his way into the music, not matter how complex, no matter what context and whatever its demands. This, coupled with a sovereign command of his instrument made it a joy and deeply moving experience to work with Joe."
Lovano developed the music and ensemble for Folk Art over a two-year period, during which time he also performed with other projects, including his nonet, his trio, and his collaborative quartet and duo with pianist Hank Jones. His busy schedule during this time also included work with the McCoy Tyner Quartet, the Paul Motian Trio, and the critically acclaimed Saxophone Summit with David Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. These joint experiences proved to be a valuable source of inspiration for the Folk Art project, as he later recalled: "I've embraced Coltrane's music for a long time and I've had a chance to explore his free flowing harmonic-melodic late-period ballads with Saxophone Summit. That and the strong spiritual feeling of playing with McCoy and Hank gave me a strong grounding in my compositional approach for this date."
Lovano began our wide-ranging interview by reflecting on this latest project, and by talking about how he formed Us Five and how he hit on its two drummer configuration. The possessor of an instantly identifiable saxophone sound, he explains how he achieved it, and, more particularly, outlines steps students can take in achieving their own sound. Since Folk Art is his twenty-first album for the Blue Note, it seemed appropriate to talk about his distinguished association with the historic label, and to discuss a couple of key albums. What gradually emerges is a slice of contemporary jazz history, viewed through the eyes of one of its key participants.
Folk Art is the first album you've made of your own compositions, but even as far back as 1989 and Village Rhythm—one of your earliest records—you came pretty close. There was only one composition on it that you hadn't composed.
A lot of my records have been mostly my compositions through the years. I've thrown a ballad in here and there to fill out the programme, but I guess this is the first album that's all my own compositions. Trio Fascination, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, was all my compositions except for 'Ghost of a Chance,' one tune. My last album, Symphonica—arranged for a full orchestra by Michael Abene—was all my tunes except for 'Duke Ellington's Sound of Love.' But this recording Folk Art was really put together for this particular ensemble [Us Five] in mind. I wrote all the pieces and arranged them to explore ways of playing together.
Could you talk about your approach to composition, and whether you work towards a composition as a thing in itself or for its utility as a basis for improvisation?
It kind of goes both ways. I like to write tunes or pieces that are vehicles to explore, that give you a lot of foundation harmonically and rhythm-wise that are springboards for improvisation, ways to explore the inner structures, or create inner structures. So that's one way of approaching composition, for me. Another way is trying to write a song and play it with interpretation, so I approach it from a few different angles.
I think from my experience of playing in a lot of different settings—playing with Hank Jones, for example—you explore beautiful songs and create your own interpretation of them. [You can do that with] other vehicles as well, but there is that approach to your improvisation on a beautiful song that you've heard other people play. Then playing with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden and other people through the years, you're exploring original compositions that are simple little folk songs that are truly vehicles to improvise on and create your own structures. So there are a couple of different angles that I've experienced playing in great bands that influence the way I try to put the music together. This particular album has a combination of those kinds of approaches.
The personnel of Us Five—you first played together in 2007?
As a full quintet.
How did you bring them all together?
Well, the band came together in a really nice way. Esperanza [Spalding, on bass] … was one of my students at Berklee College of Music from around 2002-3, and for a few semesters she was in a few of my ensembles. Francisco Mela [drums and percussion] teaches at Berklee, also. I met him around that same time and we started to play some trio gigs together around Boston. Once Esperanza graduated, I'm not sure when that was, 2005 maybe, she started to teach at Berklee also, and we started to play together. At the same time, James Weidman [piano] was a part of my ensemble with my nonet and was working with me in some quartet situations, so we did some quartet gigs—Esperanza, Mela and James, and I.
Now, Otis Brown [drums and percussion] and I met at a Thelonious Monk workshop out in Colorado. I went to play there with John Patitucci, Lewis Nash, and Herbie Hancock. We were doing a workshop there and Otis was a young student that was in that program, somewhere around 2000. So from the moment he started to play—he lives around New York—I met with Otis and he started to make some gigs with my nonet that Lewis [Nash] couldn't do … I also started to play to quartet gigs with James, Esperanza, and Otis. So by 2007 I really enjoyed playing with Otis and Mela and I decided to have a quintet with the two of them!
They both played so different. Mela's from Cuba, but he's been in the States and he's a real jazz drummer also, [yet] because of his Cuban roots he has so many different flavours and ideas. Otis is a real New York drummer with a real funky background, so I thought it would be really interesting to combine drummers. But they both were a part of my quartet gigs and knew some of my repertoire and the things I've been doing through the years, so the communication was really nice when we started to play together. We played the Village Vanguard and some gigs around the States. [In] 2008 we did a bunch of different things—played the Vanguard again and recorded Folk Art. So a nice little history developed around this group.
So how did you get the double drummer situation to work so well? It could have turned out to be extremely muddy in the rhythm section.
Well, I've had experience of double drummer groups through the years. It's all about getting the right personalities and getting the right players who can share the same stage, like two horn players, you know? It doesn't matter what instrument you play, you have to play with a certain attitude, and an egoless approach. Yes, you're challenging one another, but you have to be willing to open the door and let someone else play their ideas. You have to play as a percussion section.
Now the way I have arranged this music with cueing things … different melodies cue things; if I switch horns in the middle of the music it can cue someone to lay out or someone to come in, or the bass to drop out, or the piano to drop out, or have a moment of just trio—two drums and a horn. If I switch horns again, that might cue one of the drummers to stop and the piano to come in, and it's a trio moment for piano and one of the drummers. I cue Esperanza and she comes in and the drummer that was just playing with me, he stops and the other cat comes in …
So lots of different textures through shifting the ensemble balance?
Yeah, a lot of ways to arrange and orchestrate. With a double drummer quintet you have a lot of possibilities; you have the quintet, then I have four quartet possibilities, ten trio possibilities, nine duets, and unaccompanied voice! And throughout this recording we call on quite a few of those. In live performances it's really fun for the audience to watch all this unfold, to hear what's happening—and fun for us, too.
That is the fascination of the album, for me: the varying textures through these permutations of instrumentation. Some albums can end up sounding a little monochrome, to me, at least.
Yeah, right! And a little bombastic, too. I want to go intimate, go a little deeper into sharing space, and there are some moments the way Mela plays are pure sound and colors, in the way he tunes his drums. He and Otis can play like a percussion section, like in an orchestra, when you have all these instruments happen. And when they're both playing together they're playing for each other, not at each other. A piece of music has to lend itself to that kind of approach, too. On 'Drum Song,' when I play the taragato, they play as a percussion section, and I play some gongs as well. It's a really beautiful undercurrent full of rhythm and colors that's happening
This is your twenty-first album for Blue Note. Did it surprise you when you realized this?
Sure. It's quite amazing; time moves along. From the very beginning, each recording is a summation of who you are as a player—where you've been—so each recording for me is really important. Be as honest as you can and each recording, I feel, stands on its own throughout my catalog.
Yes, and this leads neatly to my next question, which is that someone once said, 'The one thing that's worse than not having a record contract with a major label is having a recording contract with a major label,' meaning there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with conceptualizing a new project every time you enter the studio.
This is a real challenging thing. The thing is, on each one of my recordings you have the recording date, and then the whole year afterwards I would be playing all that music and presenting a band that represents that record. And people like Bruce Lundvall would come and hear me, and hear that I was playing the music from the date, with an ensemble that represented each record. I think that's what captured him even more than the record, he would come and hear the music live. Even when I did Rush Hour with Gunther Schuller, I put an ensemble together that scaled-down some of those larger orchestrations—there were some concerts where I added a few woodwinds—and we presented the music from that record. I did a lot of concerts with that band. We toured, we played Verona and had a beautiful concert—this was 1995-95—and as I would do each recording, I would put groups together representative of that music.
The trio record—Trio Fascination—I had Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. I couldn't really tour with them, but I had a trio with Idris Muhammad and Cameron Brown, and for about two years we were playing trio gigs all over the world. Each recording along the way, I put together a band that represented that music …. Now this year we have a lot of gigs with this quintet, starting in May in Europe, and I'm real excited at the prospect of going on tour to play the music from Folk Art.
Can we talk about a couple of tracks on the album that impressed me? Maybe we can we start with the very first piece on the album, 'Powerhouse.'
That's a kind of real straight-ahead tune inspired by Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk and Coltrane, from the hard bop era into today's way of playing, harmonically and form-wise—a real swinging tune
Could you explain that in a little more detail?
It has a song-form structure harmonically, and it's a combination of things I've studied through the years—playing Coltrane's music and Charlie Parker; Wayne and Thelonious. There are written parts for the rhythm section and the two drummers in this piece. When we play the theme we play as a full quintet, and then it breaks down into a quartet. For my solo each drummer switches every chorus. On my first chorus Otis is on drums. On the second chorus Otis drops out and Mela plays. They do this ping-pong through the whole track, behind all of my choruses and then behind the piano choruses, so when the piano plays you get two trios; the two drummers continue ping-ponging chorus-by-chorus and it gave a beautiful flow and energy to this piece. I was really happy with the way that worked out. And you can hear the different drummers switch at the same tempo, and there are different rhythmic accents that happen because they're free to play. With Otis there are certain things that happen and then when I'm playing with Mela other things happen.
And 'Song for Judy,' a rubato ballad, which is interesting because rubato is not often used in jazz.
This is a real 'song' that I wrote, and rubato is a way of playing through ballads that hasn't been explored that much. It was something Coltrane was touching on in his last period. On the recording Expressions he plays though some beautiful structures, and his tune 'Peace on Earth,' also. This later period of Coltrane, he was touching on ways of playing ballad-like pieces and harmonic sequences played in a very free manner. Piano players have been doing this forever in solo piano explorations of any song. Hank Jones, for example, does this free-flowing interpretation of whatever song he wants to play. But to have groups play like that, that's different.
And as a specific writing technique, that's unusual in jazz.
Right. I tried to write a song that had that kind of flowing harmonic movement. It goes through three different keys in a chorus, and also the last phrase of the song doesn't really end the song; instead of ending, it just leads you somewhere. Keith Jarrett, his group has explored ways of playing like that, and you hear it often. Playing with Paul Motian influenced me a lot—that trio we have with Bill Frisell, the way we play a through a standard song or sequences of harmony in a more free-flowing way. So this song came together with these influences in mind, and also an inspiration from my wife Judy Silvano. Her approach also applies. Now that's played as a solo piano moment at the beginning. I enter, and we play as a full quintet throughout the piece. Esperanza is echoing some of the melody, as well as playing harmony. The two drummers are free to both play. Sometimes one is playing mallets and the other is playing brushes. There are a lot of different colours and textures happening in the percussion section on that.
You briefly talked about 'Drum Song.' Perhaps we can talk about that and 'Dibango,' which go nicely together. For me, both are album highlights.
Well, these pieces do go together, like a little suite. I play the taragato, a Hungarian folk instrument, on 'Drum Song.' That's a very simple little melody that we arrive at from the beginning. We don't start with the theme; we develop into the theme, different combinations of sounds. I play gongs, and there's different combinations of the groups we explore on our way into the theme. Once we hit the theme, then we play freely around it. The tempo changes and everything that happens within is very organic, cued by the way we feel, so it's a real development throughout that whole piece. When we end it, 'Dibango' begins with me on aulochrome [a chromatic woodwind instrument that resembles two soprano saxophones connected side-by-side], the first horn that's really been made to harmonize. It's a funky kind of tune with a blues-like structure in an odd form. The rhythm section just plays a repetitive part and I'm free to create my own melody on top, and that's a real fun tune to play. 'Dibango' is inspired by Manu Dibango, a saxophonist from Cameroon. I play a little tenor moment in the middle of that, too. I switch horns, and it kind of cues a different accent to things that happen behind the tenor.
Which leads us neatly to when you actually took up the tenor, which I guess was in the late fifties, early sixties?
I was pretty young, yes, and when I was really young I started on alto. By the time I was eleven or twelve my Dad got me a tenor, that's when I really got into to trying to find my sound.
You have developed a very personal approach and I wondered what you think about many young players today who seem to have difficulty moving out the shadows of what has gone before to find their own voice.
Well, you know it's a matter of awareness. It's hard finding your sound, but it's also about developing within the music. I think a lot of young cats today may play in one direction or another, and not play in a lot of different ways. I was really lucky, as it's much better to hear people live than study them on record. I was really lucky my Dad played saxophone He had a great sound. He was coming from Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker and Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and I heard him playing all the time. Practicing and trying to blend with him really sent me on my way. Also, he had a great record collection—all these great players.
Living around Cleveland, there were a lot of clubs, and cats would be coming through all the time. I would be there, hearing them play live—hearing James Moody live when I was fifteen years old, and Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons. Rashaan Roland Kirk, sitting in a room with him when I was seventeen. It all sent me to the woodshed and made me realize everyone had their own sound and played with their own energy and approach. That inspired me. To be able to execute your ideas technically is one thing, but to really play within a dynamic range, the beauty of your tone was always important.
And then playing in bands and standing toe-to-toe with some great saxophone players: David Young with Jack McDuff; Frank Tiberi with the Woody Herman band when I was in my early twenties. I joined Woody, and in the first three months I was playing on a concert with Stan Getz and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims [The 40th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert: Woody Herman and the New Thundering Herd November 20th, 1976]. I was twenty-three years old and I had to play my part on 'Early Autumn' and support Stan Getz playing the lead. I was ready to do that because of the way I came up, and not just stand there and play, you know, 'I'm Joe Lovano!' Man, I had to blend with Stan Getz, you know? [laughs] I had that attitude to give support, to blend and I was ready to do that, and once I did it I realized how beautiful it was and I didn't having him glaring at me, telling Woody, 'Where d'you get him from?' [laughs] I had Stan give me a smile, and that meant a lot!
A lot of younger cats, they might not play that much with other saxophone players these days. Our situations are different. I came up on the very tail end of that big band thing. You had to play in the saxophone section. When I left Woody I joined the Mel Lewis Band from 1980 to 1991, played the Village Vanguard every Monday night. Even during that whole period when I was with Paul Motian, Carla Bley's Band, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, and in that whole period in the 1980s leading up to my Blue Note contract, I was playing in a lot of great bands sharing the stage with other saxophone players.
You learn a lot about yourself and your tone when you play with other people. Like our group Saxophone Summit with Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker; we started playing together in 1999 or so. Mike had his sound, his approach, and his way of playing, but he hadn't played in an awful lot of bands with other saxophone players. You can't find too many records with Mike on and other saxophone players. He never really played in too many big bands. Some bands were more fusion and he was the star soloist. Mike came up in a whole other way, and he's influenced a lot of players through the years with his directness and way of playing. But I know with this particular group with Dave and me and Mike, Mike loved it because we played with our own sounds, yet we would come together and create a three tenor sound—a three-saxophone ensemble—and he really loved that setting, as he hadn't done it that much.
So everybody has their own development. If you could draw from your personal history and play and put yourself in any setting, you're going to develop a wider approach—as an improviser, and as someone who has developed their own sound. The early cats, they all had their own great sound. Don Byas, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley … you name every name and you can hear their sound. They all played in a lot of bands; Dexter Gordon played in Billy Eckstine's band, he played with Basie. They were all part of a lot of bands. They had their personal sound, yet they had a sound that was wide and open enough to blend with others. You hear Ben Webster in a saxophone section, you don't hear him stand out by himself, yet he had a tone that was incredible in the Ellington saxophone section. That might have been one of the first sections that had five saxophones when Ben Webster joined Duke Ellington in the early 1940s.
So you can say to kids, 'This is the way I did it,' but how do you get them to start working towards their own sounds?
Well I try and get them to play together, that's the first thing. And sometimes play just two saxophones, no rhythm, accompany each other. Play through the tune and share the space. Somebody has to outline the chords, and somebody plays the melody. Share playing through a tune together. That's really important. Not play at each other. Try to play with each other.
I do a lot of unaccompanied playing in my class and I get a lot of cats to try it. And even though you practice alone, I find that most of the young players of whatever instrument have a hard time playing unaccompanied and playing a piece right through by themselves. Piano players do it all the time. Just play and accompany themselves and just play alone. Guitar players, also. But a lot of horn players—single note players—they're not sure how to do it. 'Well man, what do you do when you practice?' A lot of times they'll be playing patterns or something out of a book, or I don't know what. But playing through a song, or play three or four chords from a tune you love to play, that's what I tell them, and half the time they stand there and they're wondering what to do. Man, play a song you love. What do you love to play? That question takes a lot because to answer that as a young player, you have to dig deep. You have to start and think about, you have to start to think about, 'Wow, what do I really love to play? I love to play page 36, exercise 14.' [laughs] you know?
Well that's a serious point, isn't it? So many young players do rely on patterns to get from A to B, and so improvisation becomes more of a process.
Well, do you know why? I think a lot of teachers at some of these universities are cats who have studied music and can play, but they have learned from playing patterns, so that's what they teach. These days there are more and more situations for people like myself to have opportunities to share their approach, to give people confidence to play with interpretation. I mean, Dexter Gordon can play the same song twenty times in a row, and it'll be the same song, but he would play it with interpretation. Let's say Miles Davis, he could play the same song all day—let's say twenty, thirty times—and every time it will be the same melody, the same chords, but his imagination, his approach is what it's about. To develop your own approach takes a lot of confidence. There are a lot of cats today who would play that same song and you wouldn't be able to tell whether it's the fifth time they played it or the twentieth. They'd play it the same way every time, as far as their rhythm and phrasing and so on.
Can we take a long look at your Blue Note career, now that you've done your twenty-first album? Maybe you can begin by saying how it all came about.
I first started recording as a leader in the 1980s for Soul Note records. I did two Soul Note records, and I recorded a record for Enja with Ed Blackwell and Anthony Cox. I did a live recording with my wind ensemble; I recorded a European Quintet I was working with in Belgium. I had about five albums under my belt before Blue Note. I was playing in a band with Peter Erskine that had Randy Brecker, John Abercrombie … Don Grolnick played piano … anyway, we played in New York at Sweet Basil, and Peter invited Bruce Lundvall to come and hear the band, maybe '88-'89. So Bruce came and heard us, and we took a break and he came up to me and handed me his card and told me to call him. I had never met him. I didn't really know who he was, so I said hello to him, took his card and put it in my pocket. Couple of minutes later, I took it out and looked at it: 'Blue Note Records, Bruce Lundvall, President.'
So the next day I called him up, said hello, and he invited me to come to his office and have a talk. He told me that he had been hearing me. Later on I found out that he was at that Carnegie Hall concert of Woody Herman. That was recorded live by RCA; that was 1976 and Bruce was still at Columbia. He knew my name and heard me on the radio and with different groups, and we had beautiful meeting, and I didn't bring him a tape or anything. We just spoke about who I was playing with, and this and that. That led to my first Blue Note recording, Landmarks.
At the same time , John Scofield was negotiating with Blue Note. John and I had been colleagues and had been playing together. We'd met each other in Boston. John at this moment was putting a record together called Time On My Hands. Originally it was supposed to be Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden and John. Before this happened, John called me to play some gigs [with his] quartet. He wanted to put a group together to play the music before the record date. He told me 'I'm doing a date, Wayne is playing, blah, blah, blah, would you like to make some gigs?' So I said, 'Yeah, man. Beautiful. Okay.' He had a trio at that time; John Riley and Anthony Cox were playing with him. Then Wayne couldn't make John's date …. John had everything booked: Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, studio, engineer, the whole thing was in the works. So John got a little nervous. He called [Lundvall] and told them Wayne couldn't make the date, what shall I do? And Bruce says, 'Call Joe Lovano.' It was funny, because John had called me already to make the gig, so it was all in the wind and I ended up doing that date with John, his first record [for Blue Note]. And that was basically right before I did my date, Landmarks.
John and I went to Japan together, and John actually co-produced that date. I put a quintet together that had Kenny Werner piano, John Abercrombie on guitar, Mark Johnson on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums. Bill was a student at William Patterson [University] where I was teaching, and Bill was in my band. John first heard Bill playing with me at Visiones [a now-defunct Greenwich Village jazz club] and around New York, and Bill joined John's band after that. So a lot of things were happening. I think Bruce realized this—that I had these relationships with all these different players playing some of the most creative music in town. Bruce was on the scene. A lot of times you might not know he's even in the room, and he might not even hit on you, but he's checking you out along the way. He surprised me when I first met him! And once I executed a few ideas, the trust starts to happen one thing leads to another.
Much as I'd like you to talk about all twenty albums you did before Folk Art, there's only time for a few, so I've chosen some of my favourites to indicate the variety of projects you have undertaken with the label. Perhaps we could start with Quartets.
Yeah! Well my working group at the time was Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart. We played and recorded live at the [Village] Vanguard. That was going to be my next release, and that particular quartet was on fire at the time. We played a lot of gigs, and I was playing with Tom Harrell a lot at that time, and collaborated with him on a couple of his recordings, too. We were in each other's bands at that time. My recording Tenor Legacy I had done. That was one of the ideas before we recorded live with Tom [Harrell]. It had Josh Redman, Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, and Don Alias percussion. So that record was in the can; that was going to come out. But my working group was the quartet with Tom, and we played the Vanguard, recorded live. That was going to be the next record.
Now, in between, Tenor Legacy was released, so I had a week at the Vanguard, and I was going to play that music with Mulgrew, Christian, and Lewis. But Josh couldn't make the gig. He was just beginning to emerge as a leader. This was almost the beginning of Josh Redman's career; Josh had some other gig and couldn't play that week. I decided to do it as a quartet and he was going to come and sit-in—special guest, that sort of thing.
So opening night I played the first set with the quartet, and Bruce and Michael Cuscuna and all the people from Blue Note were there. We had a great night. I come off the stage and Bruce says, 'We have to record live and put out a double CD!' That's what he says to me! I had no plans to record that week with that second quartet. My recording with Tom was already done and scheduled for release, so Bruce hears us play, wants to put out a double CD and I was like 'Really???' I was playing music from Tenor Legacy, so I didn't have the repertoire together for another record … So the next day I asked him if he was serious, and he said, 'Yes! Let's do it on the weekend.' So throughout that week I put a whole other repertoire together for that band—some of my originals, and I touched on a couple of classic tunes like Coltrane's 'Lonnie's Lament,' 'Little Willie Leaps,' Charlie Parker … like that.
[On] Friday and Saturday night we recorded live, and then I had a double contrasting quartet album. When they put that out I was thrilled, that was beautiful, because it happened in a real organic way. It wasn't planned, but it gave me the opportunity over the next year to be able to present two different groups: one with no piano and trumpet and one a standard quartet with sax, piano, bass and drums. So over the next period I was playing a lot with those two combinations. Different gigs, different situations. Tim Hagans was playing trumpet at that time also; that led to my recording Universal Language which had Judy [Silvano] and Tim. A three-horn sound: voice, trumpet, and saxophone.
I know, man. Michel was one of the most poetic, beautiful musicians of our time. He was one of the first people Bruce signed when he started Blue Note again in 1984-85 … so in my very first meeting with Bruce we talked about ideas and things that I would like to do, and one of them was to do something with Michel. I was playing with Michel during that time as a guest with his trio. He had a trio at that time with Palle Danielson on bass and Elliot Zigmund on drums, and I was playing a of a gigs with him, guesting with his trio a lot. We were very close. His birthday was December 28th; he was born in '62. Mine is December 29th and I was born in '52. So we were ten years apart and had these birthday parties together a bunch of times around here in New York. That was a lot of fun.
So my first official record for Blue Note was with Michel, because Landmarks—which Blue Note put out first—was originally produced in Japan for Toshiba/EMI. In that early period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ralph Peterson, Geri Allen, Ron Carter, Don Pullen and George Adams were signed to Toshiba/EMI, who produced the recordings, and Blue Note would put out the records here. But then I signed directly with Blue Note right after Landmarks, and From the Soul was the first project for Bruce.
At the time I was playing a lot with Ed Blackwell. My recording on Enja called Sounds of Joy was with Anthony Cox and Ed Blackwell … [Blackwell] played with me at the Vanguard, the first time I played there as a leader, so to put him together with Dave Holland and Michel [on From the Soul] was a beautiful, magical thing. Dave and Blackwell had played together a lot. Michel had never played with Blackwell; that was the first time they played together. That day was a special day. We pretty much recorded that in real time; there are hardly any double takes of any tune. The only tunes I had multiple takes of were the duets I did with Michel. All the group stuff was one take! So that was like a really beautiful exploration, the music just unfolded.
It also takes a lot of courage to say 'that's it,' rather than go for another take.
Yes. When you play with people as mature as Blackwell, it's so happening, it's like 'Oh, man!' I wanted to go for more takes, but I knew … and when we heard the playbacks—like that piece 'Evolution'—it was the most magical session I had ever taken part in up to that point. And Blackwell, he was on dialysis, going through changes health-wise. He'd walk over to the drums—that was a lot of energy. But when he sat down and played, he played like a kid. That recording was maybe one year before he passed. He was one of the most inspired, incredible drummers I ever knew. And you could hear it on all those Ornette Coleman records and every record he's done. There's not many takes of those tunes. Those are like—boom! They played. Ornette doesn't have multiple takes of those incredible recordings they did; those records were done in real time. Like some of the Coltrane records, too.
And finally, Rush Hour. You've already touched on this before, but maybe you could talk in a little more detail about Gunther Schuller, a leading exponent of Third Stream—a term he coined. He contributed to that album.
Well, this record was pivotal in my catalogue, for sure—for producing something, executing it, and going and playing the tapes for Bruce the next day. I played him rough mixes of what we had just recorded. He couldn't believe how that unfolded. There was hardly any post-production. We laid everything down, and that was pretty much it.
The whole thing with Gunther goes back to when I was in Berklee in the early 1970s. Gunther was president of the New England Conservatory at the time. I met his son Ed Schuller at a jam session; he was going to New England [Conservatory] and there was a bunch of cats going there at that time, Ricky Ford [for example]. I met Eddie at a jam session, and he invited me to come and play at a jam session at New England. I went over there … I guess this must have been '71 or '72, and I played and Gunther kind of peeked his head in at this jam session. This is where he first heard me play. Of course, I was in awe. Not only was he president of New England, but I had recordings of things that he had done on Columbia: things he did with Modern Jazz Quartet, Jim Hall, John Lewis, and there was this one recording that had Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy on it. Anyway I knew all those. Jim Hall was also from Cleveland and a friend of my Dad before he split, and my Dad had stuff that Jim had done and one of them was one of these records. Anyway, that was the first time I met Gunther in the early 1970s.
And then throughout that whole period I began to play a lot with Eddie. I went to their house, met his Mom, stayed over, saw his library—an incredible library of music and record collection. Gunther produced a couple of recordings I played on with Eddie. Tom McKinley the pianist (who is also teaching at the New England Conservatory), we did a quintet record that Gunther produced—Billy Hart played, Tom Harrell and I—on Gunther's label Gunmar Records. So that was the first time I worked with him in the studio … Then Eddie put out a recording called Lifecycle; this was all in the late 1970s, early 1980s.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Gunther started to do a workshop in Standpoint, Idaho, up in the mountains. It was a chamber music seminar and symposium. Milton Babbit was there; a handful of Gunther's associates he had on the faculty, they were attracting chamber music students and symphony players from all over. Some conductors who had come to talk to Gunther … it was an amazing workshop. And he had a little jazz component in this workshop. Around 1990 or '91 he asked me to come and take part in the jazz workshop, which was me, Eddie on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. So we went. There were like 70-or-so participants in the chamber music side, and maybe 15 or 20 in the jazz, so it was small—basically an ensemble workshop. They all played together in different combinations. I [taught] student projects and private lessons; Wynton Marsalis came, it was an amazing situation. It lasted about ten years, from 1985 to 1995, so there were two or three years when we went up there, Judy came with me. Gunther was conducting all kinds of ensembles, from little quintets to you name it—real contemporary music.
I was in one of his concerts, and I thought how I'd love to improvise and play along with some of this. Imagining some things that could happen led to Rush Hour. I called Bruce to let him know what I was doing. I didn't even ask Gunther, and I was kind of imaging something with woodwinds and I kind of laid something on the phone and Bruce immediately said 'Let's do it!' So, I hadn't even asked Gunther. At the time we hadn't talked about doing a big project, so I painted a little picture for Bruce and he gives me a green light to go with Gunther. I remember asking Eddie's Mom, Marjorie, she was making some dinner and I asked her, I said, 'I'm thinking of asking Gunther to write something for me.' And she got real excited. Gunther hadn't done anything in jazz for years as far as a composer or arranger; he hadn't recorded or done anything, no one had asked him. So she got real excited and pushed me to ask him, so I walked over to him and told him how I loved the concert [they'd done together], and told him I'm recording for Blue Note and did he have eyes to arrange a couple of pieces for me. I mentioned Ellington, Mingus, Ornette, and Thelonious Monk—those four pieces that are on the album: 'Prelude to a Kiss,' 'Peggy's Blue Skylight,' 'Crepuscule With Nellie' and Ornette's 'Kathline Grey'—I mentioned those composers to him and he had relationships with them all, and immediately he was in. He didn't talk about money. He said, 'I love to!' And it came later—why hadn't he done anything in jazz for years—and he simply said 'Nobody ever asked me.' So it was one of those magical things that happened.
Then he wanted to write some original things. He said, 'I'd love to do that, but I want to compose some stuff of my own.' Which he did: 'Rush Hour on 23rd Street,' 'Headin' Out, Movin' In,' and 'Lament for M,' which was for Marjorie. Shortly after that meeting with Gunther, while we were putting this together, she got ill and passed, so he wrote that amazing piece for her. I didn't want him to do the whole record, as I wanted to somehow participate in some of the compositions, so he wrote about 40% of the pieces. 20% was where I could write and put a group together that had Judy in it, and some other folks—smaller groups, to offset the larger groups. So that was a challenge for me to write some things that would be within the structure of the recording, and that was really great. Once we did it, we went into the studio, rehearsed the main takes, and recorded in two days, laid it all down. Once I executed that whole project, I think Bruce really appreciated that—like trusting, realizing I wasn't just 'a saxophone player,' that I could execute things like that.
So it was quite a major album in more ways than one.
Yes, for sure.
Just one final question, the credit crunch … How do you see it impacting on the jazz economy? For a start, there are now more and more money-for-the-door gigs.
That whole door gig has been going on for years, that's for sure! But I hear you, it's happening at an international level now. It's difficult around New York. It's an international scene and a lot of tourists come in and support the clubs. It's going be tough for everyone during this economic period if that slows up. The whole thing about the record industry—that was happening before all this: the internet, downloading, trying to figure out how to deal with publishing, free music, file-sharing all over the world. Why go buy a record?
Well, yes. The corollary of that is a project like Rush Hour, with a much larger budget than a small group session. Are companies are going to say, 'What is the point in funding something like this if people download it for free?'
I know, and the problem is we can always produce and record our little projects, like a lot of young cats on the scene today are doing their own little thing, but you would never be able to do a project like Rush Hour unless you did have a record company involved to support you, so that's fact. So in the future, what's going to happen if record companies are not involved in producing large projects—not just in jazz, [but] for symphony orchestras, the whole industry? I don't know. Some beautiful things have been created that way, and if you had to rely on just individuals going and recording you can only do so much. My projects, some of them, I could not have recorded myself. Like my last album Symphonica, a full symphony, that was incredible. I was thrilled to do something like that. My nonet projects, like Streams of Expression, where Gunther wrote three pieces called the 'Birth of the Cool Suite,' I wouldn't have been able to do stuff like that without a big label behind me. So let's just hope for the best [laughs], that people in authority have trust in artists to do things they think is worthwhile …
Joe Lovano, thanks for such a great interview for jazz.com.
A pleasure, thank you.
Dates of Joe Lovano's Folk Art tour with Us Five can be found on JoeLovano.com.