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Joe Lovano: A Tenor for All Seasons!

It’s an old jazz nerd trivia question – which jazz musician did the greatest number of recordings for the venerable Blue Note Record label? Historically the evidence has pointed to the great guitarist Grant Green who participated in hundreds of sessions as a session mainstay and recorded over twenty records as a leader. But for how much longer? Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has been an incredibly prolific artist on the modern Blue Note label and is set to release his 25th album as a leader or co-leader for Blue Note this summer!


When you start looking at all the other recording projects that he’s been a part of, it’s not hard to see that Lovano is one of the major saxophone voices on the modern scene. Hard to believe that he got a relatively late start as a leader in his mid-30s! Lovano grew up in Cleveland Ohio and came from a musical family – his father Tony “Big T” Lovano was a professional saxophone player and Joe’s earliest mentor and teacher. It was only after fifteen years of playing professionally that he made his first album as a leader for the Soul Note label! Those sideman years were well-spent with folks like Woody Herman, the Mel Lewis Big Band, Lonnie Smith, Jack McDuff, and perhaps most importantly a highly regarded bassless trio lead by drummer and composer Paul Motian that also included Bill Frisell.

Here is one of Paul Motian‘s best-loved compositions – Folk Song for Rosie:

Given the quality and range of folks Lovano played with, it shouldn’t be surprising that the recordings for Blue Note include a wide variety of settings – duos with Hank Jones, pianoless trios, standard quartets, large ensembles, big bands, strings and more; playing the music of Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker, third-stream amalgamations with birth of the cool by Gunther Schuller, fellow Italians Frank Sinatra and Enrico Caruso, Ornette Coleman and his own compositions. His most recent visit to Vancouver was a sold-out show at the Kay Meek Centre in the fall of 2014 with the Sound Prints project – a quintet co-led by trumpeter Dave Douglas playing music written and inspired by Wayne Shorter. That quintet introduced Vancouver to a wonderful young pianist Lawrence Fields (not yet 30 himself) who will be returning in Lovano’s current quartet at this year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Here’s the Sound Prints quintet playing Shorter’s composition Destination Unknown:

Amazingly his Blue Note recordings don’t even scratch the surface of what Lovano has done! Besides the 15+ recordings he did with the late Paul Motian, he’s co-led four albums with John Scofield (including last year’s Past Present nominated for multiple Grammies), been a member of the SFJazz Ensemble, and founded Saxophone Summit with a three saxophone frontline with Dave Liebman and now Ravi Coltrane replacing the late Michael Brecker. (And many many more!)

In terms of defining the modern tenor sound, Lovano is as easily recognizable and influential as the great Michael Brecker. Perhaps the reason that he’s not as well-known as Brecker in the wider musical community is that he’s never done the pop session work with folks like Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell and many others that made Brecker a household name outside of jazz circles.

I don’t think I can put it any better than Richard Cook and Brian Morton – co-authors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz when they wrote “Joe Lovano stands at the heart of contemporary jazz, a figure who, solo by solo, album by album demonstrates the continuing fertility of the genre. His stance on the jazz tradition – whether it is Coleman Hawkins or John Coltrane – is always respectful but creatively not slavishly so. There’s not a cliché in sight!”

In anticipation of their show in Vancouver and the upcoming Blue Note album, here’s the Joe Lovano Classic Quartet recorded last month at the Milan Blue Note:

The Joe Lovano Classic Quartet featuring Lawrence Fields on piano, Peter Slavov on bass and Lamy Isttrefi on drums play the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday June 28th at 8pm.

For more previews and information about the other great artists coming to this year’s festival and information about how to get tickets, check out the Coastal Jazz Blog.

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