Before you experience a note of his music, check out the cover to Joe Lovano’s recent Folk Art album. The portrait alone is a tip off to the soul and charm of the Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader.
Set against a backdrop of brilliant orange, Lovano strikes a pose of elegant cool. His profile is adorned with the requisite hat and shades. Clasped in his right arm, reaching over his shoulder, is his chief tool-of-the-trade – a tenor saxophone. But what is most suggestive of just how artful and engaging his music can be is the smile plastered on Lovano’s face.
It’s bright, cheery and natural – an expression of welcome from one of the most industrious jazz globetrotters of our generation.
“It’s a blessing to live in the world of music,” said Lovano, who performs Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
“Every musical situation for me has its challenges and its beautiful results. You know what I mean? Collaborations with great musicians are all rare and unique. But I don’t go into any situation just trying to be who I am. I try to learn things from the artists I’m playing with and share the space with the energy and the ideas that are around me. Tapping into that is what’s really exciting and inspiring.”
Just how strong is Lovano’s presence in the world of modern jazz? Strong enough to yield 20 extraordinary albums on the Blue Note label in 17 years, making him by far the historic label’s most prolific present day jazz artist.
But there are also collaborative projects Lovano has continually engaged in outside of concerts and recordings that exclusively bear his own name – such as a celebrated trio with drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Bill Frisell, a longstanding partnership with guitarist John Scofield and duet outings with pianist Hank Jones.
Finally, there is the sheer flexibility of Lovano’s projects. He has performed in solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet and nonet settings. He has played in wind ensembles, big bands and full symphonies.
Yet, the voice behind it all – whether it is displayed on tenor, alto or soprano saxophones, clarinets or the Hungarian/Turkish woodwind instrument known as the taragato – bears that broad, unshakeable smile. It’s practically ingrained in Lovano’s music.
“All of my recordings are really reflective of where I’ve been,” Lovano said. “They’re honest statements about where I am at each moment they were made. The inspiration for each has fueled the next.”
A jazzman in New York: Long one of the most established jazz names working out of New York, the saxophonist born Joseph Salvatore Lovano is actually a native of Cleveland. Among his initial jazz inspirations was his tenor saxophonist father, Tony “Big T” Lovano.
After attending the Berklee School of Music, the younger Lovano settled in New York and a role in Woody Herman’s big band, the Thundering Herd. At age 23, Lovano found himself in the band chair once occupied by veteran Herman sax man Sal Nistico. It was with Herman that Lovano made his Lexington debut in the late ‘70s.
“With Woody, there’s no audition,” Lovano said. “You’re recommended, you get the call and you go. Your first notes with him are on the first gig. So we played a parking lot in St. Louis. The music is blowing all over the place. I’m all nervous. The pressure of just reading the music was daunting. But when I soloed, I felt Woody was with me. He was listening to me.
“Woody’s attitude was, ‘Oh, you’ll learn the music.’ But he wanted to hear the feeling in your sound. That’s the kind of leader he was.”
Following two-and-a-half years with Herman, Lovano joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1980. The group occasionally toured, but was known mostly for its regular Monday concerts at the legendary Greenwich Village jazz haunt, the Village Vanguard. The club would become a performance home for Lovano in the years to come.
He recorded two of his finest Blue Note albums there – 1995’s Quartets and the 2003 nonet session On This Day at the Vanguard. He also performs a two week engagement every September at the club with the Motian trio and will celebrate the Vanguard’s 75th anniversary next month with his current quintet, the Us Five.
“I was with Mel’s band from 1980 to 1991, playing every Monday night at the Vanguard. It was an amazing period for me. Imagine living in New York, playing every week at the Vanguard and then having the freedom to also play with Paul and these other bands. By 1990, I was recording for Blue Note. And here we are today.”
Capping off this summation of Lovano’s artistic life in New York and his great jazz good fortune was a thoroughly natural and unavoidably musical coda from the saxophonist – a burst of laughter.
The big breaks: All was well in the jazz world of Lovano last autumn. Performances in Amsterdam with the Us Five were recorded with consideration for a possible live album. Later in the month came concerts with Lovano’s Grammy-winning nonet. But a fall following a concert in Lausanne, Switzerland left the saxophonist with a broken left arm. Carrying on with his arm in a sling, Lovano fell again in Barcelona, breaking his right arm. His remaining 2009 concerts were cancelled to accommodate surgery and subsequent physical therapy, which is still ongoing, for repair of busted humerus bones in both shoulders.
“I never had any cast on or anything, so I’ve actually been practicing since the first week after my surgery,” Lovano said. “I was playing mainly soprano saxophone and other horns for the first three or four weeks. The tenor (sax) was a little harder to pick up. I’m still in the middle of some serious physical therapy, but I’m back to playing concerts. Over the last week and half, I played one show in Barbados and one in Panama. So I’m good.
“The accident actually gave me some time off to write some new compositions and re-focus a bit. I’ve had quite a few jam sessions in my house during that time, too. But music has been a big part of my physical therapy, because my shoulders were affected most in the fall. All the handwork and range-of-motion physical therapy that I’ve been involved with has probably been something that, in my recovery, advanced me faster than it might have with others who don’t play music. Music, of course, is a healer.
“I continue to live in this real creative world of music. I feel its blessing all the time. I’m still thrilled being able to share my ideas at the level I am right now internationally. I just want to carry on.”
Joe Lovano performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall. Tickets are $25, $30, $35. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to www.singletarytickets.com. Lovano will also presets a clinic/masterclass at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital