Joe Lovano: Party of Five

After decades of acclaimed collaborations with peers and mentors, Joe Lovano introduces a powerhouse quintet featuring youthful talent—and two drummers.

Francisco Mela was startled when Joe Lovano broached his idea for a new quintet. Mela had been the wiry, Cuban-born drummer in the saxophonist’s trio (with bassist Esperanza Spalding) for several years, a trio that sometimes became a quartet with the addition of pianist James Weidman. But now the rotund, goateed Lovano, the beatnik Buddha of Cleveland, wanted to form a quintet with a second drummer, and not a conga drummer or a timbales drummer but a second trap-set player, Otis Brown III.

“The first day he called me about playing in a band with two drummers, I thought he wasn’t happy with me,” Mela recalls. “I said, ‘Joe, you don’t have to hire two drummers; just hire the drummer you want.’ He said, ‘No, Mela, this is a concept I’ve had for years, and now I want to try it.’ Later I heard that the same thing had happened with Otis; he said, ‘No, Joe, just hire the drummer you want.’ Both of us were so far behind
what Joe was thinking.”

“Of course they were nervous,” Lovano says with a chuckle. “How many drummers have played in situations with other drummers? On [2001’s] Flights of Fancy, my second trio recording for Blue Note, I used Idris Muhammad and Joey Baron on different tracks. Idris was in my regular trio, but I had a week at the Vanguard, and I decided to show various aspects of my record, so I brought Joey into it. Idris said, ‘Why do you want another drummer? You have me.’ I told him, ‘I don’t want another drummer; I want Joey Baron—he just happens to play drums.’

“It was one of the most magical weeks I ever had at the Vanguard, because Idris swings so hard and Joey sings on the drums. That planted the idea in my head of using two drummers in the same band. On [2002’s] Viva Caruso, I had three trap sets and a percussionist on some tracks; each person had a specific role. But that was the studio. I wanted to form a touring quintet that was piano, bass, two drummers and myself. I felt that format had not been explored before in a working band.”

Lovano calls his new quintet with Mela, Spalding, Weidman and Brown “Us Five,” and in May they released their first album together, Folk Art (Blue Note). It is also the first album for which Lovano composed all the material, and his blossoming as a writer is evidenced by the dramatic encounters he sets up for various subsets of his band, along with the juicy themes he gives them to chew on.

The nine Lovano originals are built around constant conversation, sometimes among all five players but just as often among selected duos and trios. “I’m trying to write tunes that will be vehicles for improvising,” he says. And because there are two drummers in the band, there is a percussive push in almost every encounter.

“YOU GET ALL THESE incredible different colors,” Spalding says, “because we play all these different formations. Joe’s always working with different densities. For instance, ‘Us Five’ starts with all of us, but there’ll be different rhythm sections behind different solos. So Joe might solo with Mela and me or as a duo with James; I might play a bass solo with the two drummers or James might solo with Otis and Mela. So as a listener you hear different combinations. It’s as if there are 20 different bands.”

“Having a group with that kind of form inspires a lot of new music,” Lovano confirms. “First of all, I not only have one quintet, but I also have four quartets, 10 trios, nine duets and five unaccompanied voices, so there are so many possibilities. And if you have two drummers, it’s easier to emphasize rhythm in nearly every combination.”

You can hear this on the album’s title track. Lovano announces the jaunty, four-bar march figure, an original line but one with echoes of Sonny Rollins, Georges Bizet and carnival parades. After just one pass he leaves the theme to Weidman and introduces a second motif, one he describes as “a little folk song I created to play over that march, like a nursery rhyme.” From these two themes springs his solo on the straight alto, and he plays between the accents as if he were the Thelonious Monk of the saxophone. Because the themes borrow so blatantly from our shared, folk imagination, Lovano can mess with them without us ever forgetting what he’s changing.

Just as Lovano and Weidman trade off the responsibilities for handling the theme and variation, so do Mela and Brown: One will groove while the other decorates, and then they’ll trade. Spalding is free to float, picking up one drummer’s feel one moment and the other’s the next.

The rest of this article may be found in the August/September 2009 issue of JazzTImes, on sale at newsstands or as back issue at jazztimes.com

Originally published in August/September 2009

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