Tribe of Joe: Saxophonist Joe Lovano and His Us Five Band
Tribe of Joe: Saxophonist Joe Lovano and His Us Five Band
Were Joe Lovano to play only tenor saxophone and perform solely in bands led by other musicians, he’d be an indispensable and original voice on jazz’s landscape. But on his 23 recordings for the Blue Note label, and for several years prior, Lovano, who is now 60, has been both a centered soul grounded in core jazz traditions and a seeker unafraid to explore musical extremes. His breathy, broad, and sometimes dark-toned tenor saxophone sound seems simultaneously comforting and radical. His solos often bear a clarity that is slowly revealed and thus especially rewarding. His connections to other musicians have blended compassion with challenge and spanned styles and ages. With the late drummer Paul Motian, in a trio that spanned 30 years, Lovano (along with guitarist Bill Frisell) grew from mentee to collective partner. At one point several years ago, Lovano was playing duets with the great pianist Hank Jones (their wonderful 2007 duet CD, “Kids,” was recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s club when Jones was 89). Around that same time, Lovano was also planting the seeds for his current Us Five band, and helping usher bassist Esperanza Spalding, then still in college, toward her fast-rising career.
Us Five, which Lovano brings to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room on February 22 and 23, is a fascinating quintet that features two drummers, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, along with Spalding and pianist James Weidman. It lives out nearly all of Lovano’s manifold inclinations, no easy trick, while maintaining a cohesive sound. (Here’s one of many available YouTube clips that document the group.)
The group’s recent CD, “Cross Culture,” adds guitarist Lionel Loueke into the mix (and bassist Peter Slavov fills in for Spalding on some tracks). Us Five is one of the great small groups of today’s jazz scene that feature mature master players of deep conviction playing alongside younger musicians who know how to simultaneously absorb and feed in a context that resists stasis (the quartets led by saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd present similar dynamics though sound quite different). All this should come as no surprise. Lovano is just about as complete a musician as one can find on the jazz scene; he embodies what it means to meaningfully soak in the music’s full history without prejudice, and what it’s like to use all that raw information and resonant memory to fuel something new and of substance. Jazz’s aesthetic no longer coagulates around a single dominant idea (if it ever really did); it lives in atomized tribes and disparate discoveries. Lovano is the sort of musician who makes such a reality exciting in a reassuring way.
ARTINFO’s Larry Blumenfeld recently spoke with Lovano about the Us Five band and the new CD.
Us Five, with two drummers, doesn’t seem to adhere to any standard philosophy of small-group jazz. How would you describe the group dynamic?
This group has been on a journey. [The group’s 2009 debut CD] “Folk Art” was all my tunes, and in a way it projected what cross-culture is about, which is the basis of this group. “Bird Songs” [the 2011 follow-up] was the result of us touring together and delving into the music of Charlie Parker, as well as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Billy Stayhorn. I began bringing in pieces I had recorded with Hank Jones, but exploring them in a new way through this other approach. On one gig, I played “Donna Lee” as a ballad for an encore, and it was the most magical two choruses.
There’s this approach happening in the band — a real tribal feeling. I’m referring to the feeling of playing together and developing rhythms from inside yourself. Harmonies, melodies, counting rhythms, and tracking chord change — that’s all in your head. The tribal element is more about feeling — hitting and playing together, from heart and soul.
For this CD, I brought in a lot of new pieces we hadn’t played at all before so those feelings were all more pronounced.
Using two drummers — Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela — is one key to the band’s approach as is their interaction with bassist Esperanza Spalding. Knowing that you’ve played drums yourself since childhood, how did that format take shape?
The double drummer is something I’ve been exploring for a long time. This was the first group I’ve put together specifically to explore that as bandleader. The last time I did a presentation like that was when “Flights of Fancy” came out [in 2001]. That had four different trios within it. I played a gig at the Village Vanguard, and I had Idris Muhammad and Joey Baron on the date. That double drummer configuration at the Vanguard was really the spark for this group.
After that presentation at Vanguard, the idea was there unconsciously for me. And that was right around the time I met Esperanza and Francisco Mela. I was teaching, and Esperanza was jut 19. Right from the beginning, playing with her, I heard and felt someone who was taking her bass line apart and exploring. She wasn’t just playing the bass. She had melodies going, and there were little things about her playing that I could hear as possibilities right away. There was certain clarity. I started playing trios with her and Mela. I met Otis Brown in 1999 at a workshop in Aspen, and I called him for my nonet. He had an earthy swinging feeling that I loved, and we also played in some quartets. Meanwhile, I had this trio thing going with Mela. I dug them both. So I thought, “This is it: I’m going to put them together. I’ve got my two drummers.” And it all had context. They’re both into the history and they’re different. And Esperanza can maneuver between these two drummers in fabulous ways.
When I had played the Vangaurd with Joey and Idris, we just played and things happened. It was totally organic. With Us Five, in the beginning I said a few things: break down in to different subgroups — quartet and trio and duets; pay close attention so you can leave the right spaces in the music. Now I don’t need to say those sorts of things.
This album pays overt tribute to your longtime partner, drummer Paul Motian. Your ideas about drumming and about leaving space in the music must owe some to him, right?
Even before I met Paul, before I got to play with him, I was into the way he’d play with Bill Evans. I heard the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Paul. That’s the world I was looking for, that sense of playing together, that open sense of freedom within structures. Joining Paul and Bill [Frisell] in 1981 was amazing. I was in my late 20s. Paul had just turned 50.
Touring the world with him, I developed a way of playing with honesty and freedom, learning to create these structures within songs. I learned what it means to sustain a mood, to live in that mood, and to let my expression build from night to night. On this new record, “PM” is of course for Paul. I was trying to put a piece together from beginning to end that covered a wide spectrum of feelings, from bright and brisk tempo to medium groove, from ballad feeling to blues. It has funky moments, swinging passages. I wasn’t trying to just cover all of that but to create each of these moods, just like Paul did. “Journey Within” is another one written for Paul.
With this CD, you introduce a new wrinkle to the group’s texture by adding guitarist Lionel Loueke. How has he affected you?
When I first encountered Lionel Loueke in Boston, I played with him a couple times with Herbie Hancock. I’ve played with some of the most natural and original guitarists — Frisell and [John] Scofield and [John] Abercrombie. I feel like Lionel has a natural and personal approach to guitar just like those cats did but in his own way. We had no rehearsals. I sent him some music and talked to him. The way Lionel punctuates the rhythm; he’s really in tune with what’s going on. It’s not just the sound. It’s his punctuation of the sound. It’s just like writing or speaking, it’s not just what he says with his instrument but where he says it and what his emphasis is, how it relates to the conversation, how he fits into the tribe.