Joe Lovano Moves on to the Next Chapter


​It is entirely characteristic of Joe Lovano, who parted ways with Blue Note Records in 2016 after releasing 25 leader or co-led albums in 26 years, that he would use his ECM debut, Trio Tapestry, as an opportunity to introduce a brand-new ensemble.

Joined by pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi, veterans who embody what Lovano calls “the spirit of now” with an attitude of concision, the leader—playing tenor saxophone, tárogató and gongs—presents a meditative, gradually ascendant recital of 11 “episodes.” The musicians navigate an abstract “stream of expression” that Lovano traces to his sixth Blue Note album, Rush Hour, a collaboration with Gunther Schuller that topped the Jazz Album category in the 1995 DownBeat Critics Poll and the 1995 DownBeat Readers Poll.

“I wrote the themes under the influence of my relationship with Gunther—the 12-tone concept, not only playing in all the keys, but within the tonalities and intervals,” Lovano said on Nov. 17, a few hours before the denouement of a five-night residency with his nonet at New York’s Birdland. He debuted this group in 2000 on 52nd Street Themes, an edgy, compulsively swinging paean to fellow Clevelander Tadd Dameron that earned the 2001 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

Lovano’s follow-up album, Flights Of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Edition 2, was a template-setter for Trio Tapestry on which the reedist applied the freedom principle with four different trios configured in 11 different combinations.

“I’ve been studying and trying to get deep into these concepts since before Rush Hour,” Lovano continued. “But it started to crystallize when I began writing for this session with Marilyn, whose playing comes from a similar place, and with Carmen, whose approach is so transparent and beautiful—his bass drum and one cymbal are [lead] instruments in themselves. Each piece has a tapestry of interwoven themes and harmonies and rhythmic ideas that make it work.”

In conceiving the vignettes, Lovano took into account the “tonal personalities” of his protagonists. He’s been close to Castaldi since they met as Cleveland teenagers in the late 1960s. Both he and Crispell live in New York’s Hudson Valley and have moved, Crispell said, “in the same circles of ECM.” Both were close to drummer Paul Motian, a Lovano mentor; Lovano sat in with Crispell’s band at the Village Vanguard and joined her group for a 2006 concert; and Crispell once subbed for pianist James Weidman at the Vanguard with Lovano’s two-drummer quintet, Us Five.

“It’s interesting, well-thought-out music,” Crispell said. “I found myself trying to analyze it, to figure out how he did it. Joe is an intelligent, fiery musician with a lot of passion in his playing. He can play and read and fit in anywhere, but he has an identifiable sound and aesthetic.”

The tapestry metaphor applied to Lovano’s M.O. at Birdland with the nonet—which included Weidman, saxophonists George Garzone, Ralph Lalama and Steve Slagle, trumpeter Barry Ries, bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Otis Brown III—on repertoire spanning Dameronian bebop to Lovano’s suite Streams Of Expression, a 12-tone inspired piece that provided the title to his 2006 Blue Note album.

“I trust the people I play with, and this week the orchestrations, themes and tempos, the idea of the pieces, come into the light in an organic way as we’re moving through it,” Lovano said. “I’m directing who plays where, how we create inner backgrounds. That’s inspired by the way Charles Mingus directed from the way he was feeling at the moment. I was also part of the Liberation Music Orchestra with Charlie Haden, who gave me ideas of how to lead in a way that gives everybody freedom to contribute into the overall flow. Whether it’s duet or trio or large ensemble, that approach as a leader can make things happen.”

During this week, to apply the aforementioned aesthetic was a matter of logistical necessity. The previous Sunday, in Lugano, Switzerland, Lovano had wrapped up a European tour with a quintet co-led by trumpeter Enrico Rava. Flight delays resulted in a wee-hours-of-Tuesday-morning New York arrival, forcing an ad-hoc approach to the opening night sets. Then, on Thursday, a snowstorm transformed Lovano’s 30-mile drive to midtown Manhattan into a five-hour crawl, so he arrived an hour late for the first set. Brown himself had been trapped in traffic, and so Lovano—who memorized the solos of Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones as an adolescent—propelled the band on drums until Brown’s arrival. That night, Lovano, six weeks shy of his 66th birthday, transplanted to a friend’s apartment in the Westbeth Artists Housing complex in Greenwich Village, where he spoke with DownBeat.

Fortified by a double espresso, Lovano referenced the active international schedule he maintains throughout the year. “The traveling gets challenging,” he said. “On this last tour we usually flew twice a day to get where we were going, but eight of the gigs were in Italy, which made it very nice. Somehow, when we go to sound-check and start to play together, you overcome a lot of stuff. You have to stay sober and clear, so you can deal every day, let the music take you places, and feel free on your instrument, so you can really contribute, have fun and share the space.”

Three weeks later, in a phone conversation with DownBeat, ECM owner and founder Manfred Eicher mentioned that he had been listening to Rava-Lovano quintet recordings from the recent tour. “There were inspiring moments, though we could also go in the studio,” Eicher said, hinting at the future.

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