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Conversation: Joe Lovano Takes On Parker

Joe Lovano, photo courtesy the artist

Long considered one of the great saxophonists of his generation, Joe Lovano is well known for his work in the be-bop traditions of jazz and for making it uniquely his own, innovating and improvising on the themes and sounds of Thelonoius Monk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and others.

Now, Lovano is taking the music of Charlie Parker and putting his own spin on some of Bird’s compositions, while making sure the original music remains clearly traceable to the great tenor saxophonist. Lovano says Parker had a big influence on his father, who was a tenor saxophonist in Cleveland. The new album, “Bird Songs,” has earned strong reviews for Lovano and his double-drummer quintet, Us Five, which features Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Jeffrey Brown recently spoke with Lovano from his home in upstate New York about “Bird Songs,” Charlie Parker and why he likes having two drummers in his quintet:

Editor’s Note: A transcript is after the jump. You can find plenty more audio and video of Joe Lovano at NPR, including a live performance in January at the Village Vanguard in New York. And you can find Jeff’s profile of Esperanza Spalding here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today on the phone is Joe Lovano, sax player extraordinaire, band leader, composer, and he’s got a new album with his band, Us Five, called “Bird Songs,” featuring the compositions of Charlie Parker. Welcome to you.

JOE LOVANO: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you write in the notes, this is a kind of a “what might have been” in part if Charlie Parker had lived.

JOE LOVANO: Well, that was an idea I had looking into this project and trying to put something together with his composition and the influences I’ve had listening to him on record, studying his music and playing and also developing in a period where his disciples really were major voices and influences for me as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Help those people who aren’t so familiar with Charlie Parker. What characterizes his music and his playing? What is it that you yourself picked up from listening to him?

JOE LOVANO: The feeling behind it. Understanding the swing music and listening to players that inspired him to be himself. Some of the songs, he was playing the same tunes that they were playing, and I recognized right away from listening to different recordings that self-interpretation and personal expression was the whole thing about being a jazz musician and trying to be a better musician. For me, Bird’s rhythm and energy and the focus within the band took different shapes, the way he played with Dizzy Gillespie or with Miles Davis or with Max Roach or Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an example you can give me?

JOE LOVANO: Well, a lot of the tunes Bird wrote were blueses. If he was playing on a blues, like “Bloomdido” with Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich on drums, it has a certain kind of rhythm and flow. And if he recorded and played that tune later with Max Roach or with Roy Haynes on drums, it had another kind of flavor and bounce and rhythm.

JEFFREY BROWN: That leads to the question of what you are doing here with “Bird Songs.” You’re taking these pieces and now you’ve got to interpret them, right?

JOE LOVANO: Yeah, and the thing is, is to play the harmonies and the melodies and try to make them your own, you know, to play within the structures, but yet develop within them from my personal history and experiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me one example from this album. You’ve got a lot of famous Parker songs here, so pick one. I mean you’ve got “Passport,” you got “Yardbird Suite,” “Dexterity,” “Koko,” a lot of things. Just take one and tell me what you did with it or how
you thought about it.

JOE LOVANO: Ok, well let’s say “Koko,” which was one of Charlie Parker’s most amazing explorations on the tune “Cherokee,” really the song form that he goes into after he plays the original beginning melody, which I consider “Koko,” the front introduction into his chorus is on “Cherokee.” I never go to “Cherokee” in my version. I just play on the incredible themes and lines that he played at the beginning, which was him and Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, they played as a trio. So I took a trio with my two drummers and myself on saxophone and just explored the beginning, the main themes really of Charlie Parker’s, because once they get into Cherokee they don’t play any theme. He just improvises. So I focused on the themes that he wrote, the little phrases and tried to develop ideas that were spring-boarded from his phrases, the sequence of notes. But then I took a lot more liberties. I played pretty free over it and tried to change the tempo and just feel the different things that were happening.

[Excerpt of “Koko” from Joe Lovano’s “Bird Songs”]

Having the two drummers playing in tandem also gave me an opportunity to have them play together with me in a very creative way where we were exploring different tempos at the same time. Having the two drummers in a quintet really opens the door for many possibilities to happen. There’s five different quartets that can emerge. There’s 10 trios and nine duos, you know

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve got the calculation of the combinations.

JOE LOVANO: Well, you know, we’ve been playing about three or four years now and at the very beginning those ideas and those things were all in the air. These things couldn’t happen, you know. They can happen if we let them happen. It depends on who lays out and how you really listen and structure the inner orchestrations as we play, and in this particular case on this recording there’s a lot of different combinations that happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, let me ask you the proverbial state of jazz question. How healthy, when you look at musicians, you look at the audiences, you look at the recording industry, what do you see? Are you worried? Are you hopeful about where things are?

JOE LOVANO: Well, I think internationally today the music is being heard and is at one of the highest levels. It’s been inspired by the history of the masters throughout the period, that has been recorded music, which is not that old really. And we have a lot to reach for within that, what I call the library of sounds and spirits. I think today is, within jazz education and the awareness of folks around the world, it’s at a very high level and there’s a lot happening. As we saw in the Grammy’s, where my young bassist, Esperanza Spalding, who’s featured on my last two recordings, “Folk Art” and “Bird Songs,” with this group, Us Five, where she won Best New Artist at the Grammys. That was the first time a jazz musician was ever even nominated in category. And it feels so great that people stood up and took notice of an excellent young musician that is expressing herself in such a way. I mean, Esperanza could have on the drop of a hat played behind Barbra Streisand, she could have played behind Mick Jagger, she could have played behind Bob Dylan, she could have played behind Justin Bieber. He couldn’t have played with anybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, that I’d like to see.

JOE LOVANO: It’s a testament that people are starting to wake up to the fact that this music is really important and it’s about your self-expression and deep soul, and the execution of ideas spontaneously like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Joe Lovano’s newest recording is “Bird Songs.” Great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

JOE LOVANO: Thank you Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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