Joe Lovano (who is coming to Wesleyan tomorrow!!) is one of the major musical voices of his generation, having gotten there honestly through a long dues-paying process both in terms of professional apprenticeships and development of his sound. That sound is now somewhat difficult to describe in words, in part because his voice has become so distinct (as with, say, Joe Henderson, whose sound is itself a point of reference for describing other things rather than a compendium of adjectives). I can, say, though, that his versatility (in addition to his well-documented virtuosity on tenor and soprano saxophone, he plays various other woodwinds and is actually a great drummer as well) and his vision as a composer and bandleader have been profoundly influential, and yet he continues to be able to fit seamlessly into a wide variety of scenarios.
I discovered his music in 1991 before he was a household name in the jazz world, and so I’ve been a fan for more than half my life. As such, it was difficult to whittle this list down – I could easily do another 10 just from his own records that I neglected here, not to mention many other great sideman appearances with Lonnie Smith, James Williams, Dave Brubeck, Yoron Israel and several of the artists below (and on and on). Hopefully you enjoy checking out this sampler platter.
1 ) “On This Day (Just Like Any Other)” (from On This Day at the Vanguard)
This epic live track, featuring Joe’s Nonet, encapsulates numerous elements of his sounds. There is a mix of tempos, great improvising (by him and by the ensemble together), great writins g and orchestrating by Joe and particularly stellar interplay between him and the drums (in this case Lewis Nash).
2 ) “Monk’s Mood” (from One Time Out by Paul Motian Trio)
This 1987 track showcases Joe’s exceptional ballad playing, as well as documenting some early work by the landmark bass-less trio that drummer Paul Motian led for over 20 years with Joe and guitarist Bill Frisell.
3 ) “Luna Park” (from Universal Language)
I still remember where I was standing when I first heard this track in 1993 (and, subsequently, the rest of the album – I did eventually sit down). There are great instrumental solos by Joe (on tenor and soprano), Tim Hagans and Steve Swallow but what particularly blew my mind was the musically seamless way he incorporated Judi Silvano’s voice, both as an improviser and particularly as part of the horn section. I had not ever heard Abbey Lincoln’s work with Max Roach at that point so this was my first exposure to voice-as-horn ensemble textures and I was knocked out. I still am, really.
4 ) “Big Fan” (from Meant to Be by John Scofield)
The Scofield Quartet with Lovano (and, here, Marc Johnson Bill Stewart) was very influential to many musicians of my generation, and this driving yet melodic performance offers a glimpse of why. For younger musicians who associate Sco with more “jam band” based music, this is necessary research.
5 ) “Blessings In May” (from Cross Culture)
Us Five is one of Joe’s current projects, featuring two drummer/percussionists (Francisco Mela and Otis Brown, III) as well as bassist Esperanza Spalding (maybe you’ve heard of her?) and the great pianist James Weidman (who himself has visited Wesleyan often to perform with our own Prof. Jay Hoggard). This recent track shows the interactivity and rhythmic infectiousness characteristic of the band.
6 ) “Vista” (from Form by Tom Harrell)
I could easily do a Top 10 list of just collaborations between Joe and trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell (indeed, Joe is on four of the albums cited in my Tom Harrell Top 10 here and that doesn’t even include other records like Steve Swallow’s Real Book). For this list I chose a moody yet hard-grooving track from an early recorded collaboration between the two. Just gorgeous stuff.
7 ) “Sounds of Joy” (from Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard)
And I was there! It’s true, actually, and it was mind-blowing to hear Joe, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and the late Mulgrew Miller throw down on a bunch of jazz standards. They did throw in a few Lovano original tunes, though, and this rhythmically assertive one made the cut for the live album, a two record set also featuring tracks from another quartet with Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart.
8 ) “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” (from Symphonica)
Joe recorded this lovely 1970s Mingus ballad on the previous album on the list, but here it is creatively and lushly reimagined by arranger Mike Abene. Joe has recorded on numerous occasions in an orchestral setting, and he has both the warmth to blend and the assertiveness to cut through as needed.
9 ) “Say Hello to Calypso” (from Live at the Regattabar by Grand Slam/Jim Hall)
Warm yet assertive. Lyrical yet dexterous. Commanding as a soloist yet highly interactive. Am I describing Joe or guitarist Jim Hall? It could be either, of course, and that may offer a tiny bit of insight into the longstanding musical rapport they shared. This live recording features their “Grand Slam” quartet with bassist George Mraz and once again Lewis Nash on drums.
10 ) “Work” (from From the Soul)
In the early 1990s, shortly before his Blue Note deal, Joe cut this great session on the Soul Note label with pianist Michel Petrucciani, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Ed Blackwell (both an important figure in Joe’s career and another Wesleyan connection, having taught here for a long time up until his passing). Joe makes great use of this highly interactive rhythm section, displaying both his signature sound on soprano and his special connection to Thelonious Monk’s compositions.