Joe Lovano’s Top Six Saxophonists

Ken Micallef

By Ken Micallef

on 05.03.13 in Lists

Joe Lovano’s output is voluminous and encompasses an array of jazz styles. He blew an immaculate, straight-ahead tenor saxophone on 52nd Street Themes, honored Charlie Parker on Bird Songs and revisited the ’50s-era school of cool on Streams of Expression. And then there’s his blustery, innovative work as a member of the Paul Motian Trio with the late, master drummer and guitarist Bill Frisell. Throughout, Lovano’s tenor is as flexible as the material he pursues, a burly, angular, shimmering, even romantic instrument that’s grounded in jazz but is ultimately not chained to it.

Perhaps more than with his other groups, Us Five gives Lovano a lab in which to try out new ideas, new configurations, and new sounds. The group’s latest release, Cross Currents (Blue Note), takes the group forward while Lovano looks back. Over the course of its running time, Lovano plays an assortment of horns and percussion, from Hungarian tarogato and Belgian aulochrome to Nigerian log drum and gongs; the group group includes Grammy Award winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela. This amalgam of unusual instruments, and the group’s dual drummer configuration, recalls the boundary-stretching ’60s recordings of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

“Some of the instruments I play on the album I have collected through the years,” Lovano says. “They’re ancient sounds, they go back in time in the history of the world of music, from Asia, North Africa, Nigeria. These sounds feel like the earth, like having it come from your soul. It’s not just a technical thing. When you vibrate on the tonalities of these instruments and don’t try to play any specific kind of music, you feel the soul of the music in a different kind of way.”

A similar philosophy extends to the makeup of Lovano’s group. “To have a quintet with double drummers, a lot of points of reference can happen,” he says. “Anything can happen if everyone is paying attention and sharing a space together. That’s the idea. The double drummer configuration was inspired by Art Blakey, Max Roach, Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell with Ornette, and Rashid Ali and Elvin Jones with Coltrane.”

As the masters have influenced Lovano, he has in turn influenced the new guard of younger jazz musicians.

“I realize what a deep relationship I have with all of these cats.” Lovano says. “It’s a beautiful scene today. As a musician, for a long time you’re in people’s audiences. Then all of a sudden, they’re in your audience. I was in Joe Henderson’s audience a lot,” he continues. “And the audiences of Dexter Gordon, George Coleman and Clifford Jordan. Once when I was playing the Berkhausen festival in Germany, Dexter was in the audience. That night I somehow held my notes just a little longer. I got up the next morning and Dexter was just coming in and we hung in the hotel lobby. I got the chills. That happens for all of us and it’s happening for these cats now. It’s a continuum. That’s how these things are handed down: in real time.”

eMusic’s Ken Micallef asked Lovano to listen and comment on new recordings from his favorite current saxophonists.

Tony has a very hip, contemporary approach. He's a New York cat, playing in a lot of ensembles exploring different ways of playing. He reminds me of when I first came into town in the '70s and early '80s and the different loft situations I was involved with, which really carried me into today. He is experiencing a lot of stuff in those directions. And also he's had a chance to play with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, which I joined in 1986. And he's been experiencing playing Carla Bley's great music, and he is putting together ideas and assembling his personal history. All of these cats are doing that. Novela is really reminiscent of Liberation Orchestra: the energy, the way he feels the music from within the ensemble and steps forward within it. Tony plays with a beautiful organic approach. To improvise and create music within the music is where I want to live.

Rudresh really is developing a way of playing [that's drawn] from his roots and his personal explorations and the people he has been with. His sound on the instrument has a vocal quality that is really beautiful. I've known him since we met at the Gunther Schuller workshop in the early '90s. Then, he was coming from a certain alto approach influenced by Steve Coleman and cats from Chicago like Bunky Green. On this recording, a lot of stuff is coming together for him: his lines, his story. He's got multi-dimensional roots. Some cats have deep roots, some have shallow roots, some have no roots. You can hear it in every phrase they play. The way you can make records today, there are no Bruce Lundvalls or Michael Cuscunas, it's easy to make your own CD now. It's good in one way. But in another way it stamps you if you're not ready. Maybe you only have 15 minutes in you and you have to record 70. That makes the listener want to hit the fast forward button instead of the repeat button. Not that these recordings were like that. But Rudresh is playing from very deep roots.

I heard Donny with Gary Burton when he first played in New York years ago in the '90s. He immediately impresses you, because he is very serious on his horn. He has more of a straight-eights feeling, an up-and-down approach in his rhythm that puts you in a certain direction. But he can play, man. The band on this record is strong and it's well-rehearsed and the execution is amazing. I think they achieved their goal of trying to play perfect. It has that polished feeling to it. Donny is an incredible saxophonist, though this recording left me a little cold. It's about playing the layers, and I'm not sure if they played as a band or with a performance attitude in the studio as opposed to laying tracks. But everybody played their part incredible, like they were following a score, like it was already laid down on a computer. That is a way of recording, and that has its challenge. But it's not about interpretation as much as trying to play with perfection.

The Sirens

Chris Potter

Chris has a lot of ideas. He plays beautiful bass clarinet and a number of horns. I've heard him through the years tackle a lot of different avenues and ways of playing with cats. He has a real special maturity all his own. He plays with a lot of trust and he really explores his dynamics within the music. He has beautiful rhythm and flowing ideas. The tunes on this recording have a soulful expressive feeling to them. I first heard Chris playing with Red Rodney and he was playing alto. He didn't really start on tenor until he began playing with Paul Motian. He's real versatile and he has a strong presence in his tone and articulation and he can fit in a lot of settings because he's very free rhythmically on his horn. That's why you hear him with everyone from Steely Dan to Pat Metheny. He is definitely a disciple of Michael Brecker in a certain way, and he's gone in a direction that has led to those gigs. When Joshua Redman and Chris Potter and Eric Alexander played the 1991 Thelonious Monk competition, Alexander came in second. Eric was one of my students. Eric has great jazz roots in his playing, his study of Sonny Stitt and George Coleman, they taught him how to play. When I taught Eric at William Patterson College, he played a Sonny Stiff solo right off the bat. A lot is coming together for him now. He can play and he knows a lot of music. He's involved in the rich history of the music more than the others actually. Eric has a deep repertoire of his own. That's the depth of your soul and roots in the music, and Eric has a deep repertoire.

I've known Marcus for a while, he's got a real nice feeling. He plays relaxed and clear. He really needs to experience playing in a lot of situations. I've heard him with Roy Haynes's groups. But to put out a double CD like this, that's challenging and ambitious. I give him a lot of credit. He's playing tenor and alto and soprano and he's searching and discovering things all the time. He's developing a sound of his own on those different horns. Beautiful. The people he's playing with on the record, they're like a family and you can really hear that comfort and flow; it's beautiful.

Year Of The Snake

Fly Trio

Fly is a beautiful trio, they play with a wonderful clarity. And Mark plays with a brilliant execution on his horn. But he plays with more of a classical feeling in nature on the horn. He has a beautiful sound and there are soulful moments that appear, but his approach on the instrument is really a classical approach in a way. I mean his rhythm and execution, the way he plays up and down the horn. He plays with an amazing range on his instrument. That trio has a classical approach in the way the music is written and the way they come off it in the rhythm and in the attitude they're playing. They're improvising but their dialogue is more classical in nature, the way it feels. They have soulful moments, but what is swing? That's expression, the waves, the life forms, the wind. Fly sounds lovely and beautiful and their music has a real presence, it captures you.