The son of 'Big T'

Saxophonist Joe Lovano is a workhorse indeed. He's just released Symphonica, his 27th album as a leader and his 20th for the Blue Note label. This year he's co-led the SF Jazz Collective and Tenor Summit, along with saxophonists David Leibman and Ravi Coltrane. His touring with his new band has taken him as far as Australia, where he had just checked into a B&B when we caught up with him by telephone. He talked about his dad, Tony "Big T" Lovano, gigging in Detroit during the early '70s, and his lengthy relationship with Blue Note Records.

Metro Times: Did "Big T" have a big influence on you?

Joe Lovano: My dad was definitely instrumental in preparing me to be able to work and play, you know, no matter what kind of gig it was. Playing with my dad and growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and developing as a young player around my dad and all his colleagues. Playing with players from his generation when I was a teenager gave me a lot of confidence and it also gave me a large foundation of repertoire.

MT: Did you emulate your dad's style?

Lovano: In the beginning I was trying to play just like him. Luckily he was coming from Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. My dad had a wide variety of musicians who influenced his playing. He was born in 1925 and he came up during the bebop era. He played jam sessions with John Coltrane in the early '50s. He was deep into jazz and he had a great record collection. He taught me how to teach myself. My dad studied formally. He played alto in the Army band. He was a deep player. He played in all kinds of bands. I grew up around by dad's colleagues who were some serious cats.

MT: Did you have other influences?

Lovano: The jazz musicians around Detroit were very inspiring. Sonny Stitt was from East Lansing, saxophonist Wardell Gray was from around there, and the Jones brothers — Hank, Thad and Elvin. I ended up playing with all three of them. I still play with Hank today. Those musicians inspired me to be my own player.

MT: When was your first gig in Detroit?

Lovano: My first big gig was with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. He lived in Detroit at the time. It was in 1974. I attended Berklee College of Music. I was in Boston when I got a call from Lonnie to fly to Detroit and basically audition for his trio. I started to work with him at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Detroit was his home base at the time, and mine was in Cleveland. I was commuting from Cleveland to Detroit for about a year, touring all through Michigan, and through the chitlin' circuit with Lonnie.

MT: Over the years, you have played with jazz musicians from various generations. Do you have to adjust your style much when you play with an elder statesman pianist like Hank Jones or a young experimental guy like Jason Moran, for example?

Lovano: If I wasn't a mature improviser I would really have to adjust my style. I've developed these relationships with musicians that just keep building. That's the beauty of jazz — it's multi-cultural and multi-generational. If you are really in the creative mode of improvisation you can play with anybody.

MT: Symphonica is your 20th album for Blue Note Records. How have you managed to stay with one record label for two decades?

Lovano: Luckily Blue Note is one of the more established labels because of Bruce Lundvall, who runs the label, I've been really fortunate to have his trust through the years, and being able to record many projects and present a wide variety of my music.

MT: How did you meet Lundvall?

Lovano: I was playing in drummer Peter Erskine's band. Bruce came to hear us. He gave me his business card and told me to call him. I didn't know who he was. Ten minutes later I looked at his card. I was surprised he was from Blue Note Records. So I called him the next day. We had a meeting. He told me he had been hearing me, and he was interested in signing me. He asked me what kind of ideas I had. That was the beginning. I didn't have to make a demo tape. He heard me playing on the scene. It was kind of like how they used to do it in the old days where producers would go out to hear musicians play.

MT: Each of your albums has a distinct personality. How do you keep from repeating yourself?

Lovano: I think each recording is a very special thing to document not only your playing but who you are as player and the people in your life that you create music with. So each one of my projects has a different personality, but the concept and the approach about the music are consistent. The personnel around me changes because I play with a lot of people. I thrive off others. I don't want to make the same record twice like a lot of jazz musicians do. They make the same record two or three times. Then their contract is over. They are gone. Coltrane's recordings that were meant to be released — every one was real different. Miles especially, every Miles Davis record is different.

MT: If being a musician hadn't worked out, did you have a contingency career in mind?

Lovano: No. I never really had to think about that. From a real early age I was so captured by the music and the whole essence of creating music with other people. I was very fortunate. I didn't have a fallback plan. I prepared myself to be versatile. If I didn't have a career as soloist, I could've gone to Las Vegas or done studio work. I could've done other things in music. I was always captured by being a soloist, an improviser and a composer — that always motivated me.

The Joe Lovano "Us Five" Quintet (Esperanza Spalding, bass; James Weidman, piano; Francisco Mela, drums; and Otis Brown III, drums) performs at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, at the Michigan Theater. Pianist Jason Moran shares the bill playing solos and duets with Lovano. 603 E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times — and begs to note that Sonny Stitt, in fact, grew up in Saginaw (although Big Nick Nicholas was from Lansing). Send comments to [email protected]
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