Free jazz, no, "Jazz Free", yes. A conversation with Joe Lovano
On February 27, Joe Lovano will kick off a North American tour in Montreal with the San Francisco Jazz Collective (SFJC). As a preview to the group's upcoming visit, the tenor saxophonist tells us first about the group's brand new program, then offers an update on his own activities, like his landmark concert performance with Ornette Coleman last summer, his next release and a secrete playing wish.
Marc Chénard: The SFJC has all the ear markings of an all-star band. Looking at its history, you are one the newcomers to it, like Dave Douglas.
Joe Lovano: The Jazz Collective was put together in such a beautiful way, and it had a great personal when it first started back in 2004. It's been a real thrill for me to be part of it for the last two seasons, and now a third one is about to get underway. Both Dave and I joined during the Thelonious Monk period [in 2006], when Monk was the featured composer. Joshua Redman, who first instigated this group in his capacities as artistic director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, asked me to take his place, because he wanted to focus on his own personal projects from then on. It was his idea then to bring together a number of musicians together in an ensemble that would feature the music of a given jazz composer in each new season. It started with Ornette Coleman, and then Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Monk. I joined around the time that Nicholas Payton, the original trumpeter, and Bobby Hutcherson decided to split. So Stefon Harris, Dave and I stepped in. We three have been on board for the last couple of years, and after Monk we did Wayne Shorter last year.
M.C.: And for 2009, who then is the featured composer? And also: how do you make your choice?
J.L: We have decided to focus on the music of McCoy Tyner. Now, how we make our choice is simple: we, as the ensemble, just throw out names, at least we each put our bids in for the people whose music we would like to try to cover. Randall Kline, who is the director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, also has his word to say. It's a real cooperative situation then, and a great one at that because several people are really involved in this and who all care very much about what we do. But ultimately, we, the band members have the final say. For a moment, we thought of covering the music of Horace Silver, but I believe that will be for next year. In fact this is my last season with the band, because I originally signed up for three years. I've got so much going on myself, my projects and what not, so I just want to move on and deal with my own musical conceptions. In any event it's been so great to be part of this ensemble, and I'm really looking forward to this coming season, too, since we will be covering some really beautiful tunes of McCoy's. But more than that, each of us has contributed an original piece to the program, as has been the case since its inception.
M.C.: So what then are the pieces you plan to cover?
J.L.: I chose to arrange McCoy's piece called "Aisha" [from Coltrane's 1961 Atlantic album "Olé"]. Robin Eubanks, our trombonist, combined "Indo Serenade" and "Parody", just like McCoy did originally; Matt Penman, the bassist, did "Three Flowers"; Renee Rosnes, on piano, chose "Fly with the Wind"; we also worked on "Four by Five", arranged by our alto player Miguel Zenon, then there was "Peresina", arranged by Dave Douglas, then "Consensus" by drummer Eric Harland. As said before, we each contributed an original the program. Mine is called "Jazz Free". Well, I don't play Free Jazz, but rather I play my jazz free. (Laughs) What I did here is to devise a piece in such a way that there are a lot of events written out, but we have to create the arrangements as we play it each night. Instead of me writing out something for us to rehearse and repeat in sequence, including set solo spaces, we have to create it right there on stage. That means, there will be different combinations of duets, quartets, in sum, changing configurations played in a flowing way, with little melodies cued in at each new performance. My intention here was to write something that would really contrast with all of the other pieces, so as to give us a moment in the set where we really have to put something together on the spot.
M.C.: That makes for a very substantial concert; there'll surely have to be an intermission somewhere along the way.
J.L.: Well, we have 14 pieces on our program, but each night is going to be a different combination of them, because we will not be able to cover it all in one performance. That also was the case that last year, with the program of Wayne Shorter music and Monk before that: Each concert had its own set list and solo orders. It's not a single package concert done each night. Because we have such a rich repertoire and an ensemble of this caliber, each individual being an inventive and individual voice in his own right, you want to feature everyone throughout the evening in a special way, so it would be hard to squeeze the whole program in like a set 'show', which is not what we want to do. Basically we will do it in such a way that we split it up between those of the chosen composer and our own. By doing it this way, we will learn how things come together from night to night and what ways we can take it. From the onset, the SFJC records its concerts and the best performances are packaged in multiple CD release where you can hear the whole repertoire of a given year. On last year's package, it took three CDs to cover all of our material and the Shorter pieces, so that's where you can get the whole thing. And let me tell you, it's a lot of music to take in! And it's quite challenging stuff, too. But everybody is just so incredible, as players for sure, but also as composers and arrangers, and each member's own personality also comes through. The nice thing with this group is that there is a great chemistry between us, we are all into each other's music, know each other and have been on the scene for a while. All of that adds to the flavor, or the inventiveness of how we play, like the great rhythm section we have; they can handle so many conceptions and ways of playing with such great articulation and precision. It's really something else. Now, we, as the front line, the four horn players, play with a real deep sound, and we use a lot of dynamics in the way we approach things as a section.
M.C.: The group's size is interesting in that it's somewhere between the small combo and the big band, so you can have something more sophisticated in terms of writing, but not too big to make it to be too confined by it either.
J.L.: But we also try to break it down into some more intimate moments throughout the set. By the way, until last year, the SJFC was an octet, but we will not have our vibraphonist Stefon Harris with us this season, because his wife is expecting right in the middle of our tour. So, there are three rhythm and a four horn frontline, with me, Miguel, Dave and Robin. Unlike the previous two seasons, when I used some soprano, I'm sticking just to tenor this time around; it was just a question of how things worked out arrangement-wise. But as you know, I use other horns, too [i.e. soprano sax, straight alto, alto clarinet and the aulochrome, a revolutionary type of double soprano sax with two mouthpieces and dual playing mechanisms]. I use some of these on my upcoming Blue Note release [due out in early May] called "Folk Art", in a new band of mine called 'US five'. James Weidmann is on piano, Esperanza Spaulding is the bassist, and I have two drummers Francesco Mala and Otis Brown. Nowadays, I'm really trying to put things together where it's not just the instrument that counts, but the people who play them, so I'm writing in such a way that their personality come through in the music.
M.C.: Since you brought it up, let's now turn to some of your own projects.
J.L.: For this year, the quintet is really what I want to focus on, but there's plenty of other things, too, like dates with Hank Jones in a quartet setting at Birdland for a week in April with George Mraz and Paul Motian. Also, I just recorded a trio with Brian Blade and John Pattitucci, for John's own next release, and have some dates with that for this year, like a week at Dizzy's, if I'm not mistaken. Also, I'm nominated for a Grammy for my recording "Symphonica", and there is some talk about some orchestra projects. I'm working on performing more original music in various settings and, of course, the two-week run of the trio with Motian and Frisell at the Vanguard, and a couple of things on the side as well. I have quite a creative year ahead of me.
M.C.: Joe Lovano always has many irons in the fire, we know that.
J.L.: Well it's so great to be on the scene for all these years, and to have relationships with so many people in such a multi-generational world of music.
M.C.: Speaking of relationships with people, do you have a kind of wish list of people you'd like to play with but never have up to now?
J.L.: Well, this last summer, I sat in with Ornette Coleman's band at the Baltica Jazz Festival in Germany. I was jazz artist in residence at that festival, and it gave me the chance to put together about four or five different concerts with a range of people. Ornette's band happened to be programmed for one of the evenings, and it was just the right moment to do it. In fact, I was just going to play a few tunes with him, and as I stepped up a third of the way through the set, I wound up playing with him right to the end of it, including the encores. Man, he was so embracing; it was so beautiful and inviting. He was the one who invited me to sit in, and it was just the right moment to do it. In fact, he invited me to sit with him before, over the last year or so, but the circumstances just didn't arise until last July, and it was certainly one of the great thrills of my life to be that close to him on stage and dig him, because he's something else. That saxophone sound of his is incredible, and his ideas flow so beautifully and clearly. It was amazing to share a space with him, to both harmonize with and have my little solo moments, just to be part of this beautiful conception of playing, of orchestrating. And, of course, I'd really love to do some other things with him (laughs). What makes it special are the double basses and Denardo on drums, too, so there was a really nice space within the rhythm section, with the basses accompanying Ornette and me to harmonize with him on occasion, even for me to emerge with my own ideas within the music as well. It's as if I found myself within three different kinds of places in the form of the music, and I was feeding off of these and trying to contribute from within, so I learned a lot from that.
With regards to your question about who I'd like to play with I haven't before, I'd like to play with Keith Jarrett at some time, and explore some music with him in whatever way, be it standards or originals, or maybe just improvise like that.
M.C.: Has a contact ever been made?
J.L.: Well, I've spoken to him a few times. At one point, he mentioned wanting to do something different, outside of his trio, and there was even a little talk of a quintet back at the time when he was on a little break because he wasn't feeling well. During that period, I spoke with him a little bit, but since his return, his trio has really taken off in so many beautiful directions. So I would love to play with him at some time, in that deep, intimate and warm music he plays. It's possible he might have said something about it in an interview, and I was even quizzed about it, too, and I responded: 'Oh yeah?' So there was something in the wind at one time, and it's still I'd love to pursue.
M.C.: Returning to the SFJC for a moment, it must be difficult for all of you finding time to meet and rehearse, as you are all so busy with your own things.
J.L.: The organization has been so on top of things that it made it possible for all of us to rehearse for a whole week in New York [i.e. the first week after the New Year]. They decided to have us rehearse here rather than in San Francisco like they've done previously, because all of us are based here anyway. Those rehearsals were also very intense ones. But we plan to do more before our first concert of the tour in Montreal; in fact, we're arriving a couple of days prior to the show to fine-tune ourselves. Those first five days were needed to work things out, but we need a couple more to refresh ourselves before the first show. It's really then that we will figure out the sequencing of tunes. You see, there's more to it than just playing one tune, followed by another and so on. There has to be a concept of orchestrating a program beyond a mere rundown of tunes. To put a 75 to 90 minute set together requires a sense of programming. And by rehearsing so intensely like we did, you really learn how things flow. And that's a very important thing about the presentation: beyond a set list, we want to capture the audience and take them with us on a beautiful journey that is going to be McCoy's music and ours, presented in a seamless kind of way. That's a challenge for us, as creative musicians, to bring this about in our approach. It's more than just playing your horn. And McCoy's music is so beautiful too, timeless, melodically and formally, rhythmically, you name it. It's going to be great to work out a program like that. As you may know, I've been playing a lot with McCoy. I'm on his latest release "Live at Yoshi's, Quartet" with Jeff Tain Watts and Christian McBride. To play and record with McCoy Tyner is great, and I've performed with him off and on since 1999, the first time was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins and Charnett Moffett. I've done a lot of quartets gigs with him, at least once per year. Last December I played with him for one night at the Blue Note, where he had a whole week for his 70th birthday; he had a guest each evening, and I was one of them.
M.C.: As mentioned previously, the SFJC's season concerts are recorded for release. Do you record all gigs of a tour?
J.L.: We don't record everything; it's more the later part of the tour we do, like the last six or seven of them. We wind up in San Francisco, so I think they have that organized that for our performances there, and there might be something done for our New York date at Lincoln Center.
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