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Joe Lovano: Rising from the Ashes

Joe Lovano and Jason Moran outside the Village Vanguard
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano

Joe Lovano is strolling the grounds of Villa Paradiso, his lush 3-1/2 acre spread near Newburgh,N.Y., about an hour north of the George Washington Bridge. It’s a rare sunny day after a seemingly endless stretch of dreary, rain-soaked weather in the New York City area. As Lovano surveys his property, proudly pointing out every blue evergreen, cedar and weeping willow that he and his wife, singer and longtime collaborator Judi Silvano, have planted since acquiring the place 10 years ago, the birds are tweeting, a brook adjacent to the property is flowing and babbling in the background and squirrels are hopping around. Lovano says he even gets regular visits from raccoons and deer on his property. It’s all so rustic and peaceful; not exactly the kind of setting you would associate with such a quintessential hipster as Lovano.

But these days when Lovano’s deep in the woodshed, chances are he’ll emerge with a wood chipper or sitting on a John Deere lawn mower. And when he says, “You dig?” to Judi he’s more than likely inquiring about her recent activities in the garden.

“Yeah,” he acknowledges. “The fire turned everything around.”

It was late February 1998. Lovano was on tour in Europe with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. Judi was chilling at Villa Paradiso, the getaway haven they had purchased from saxophonist Dick Oatts in 1993. Unbeknownst to both of them on that fateful winter evening, their main pad on 23rd Street in Manhattan was going up in flames. An electrical fire emanating from the walls had spread quickly and ferociously throughout their 1,800-square-foot loft. The tin ceiling effectively contained the fire, superheating the apartment like an oven and toasting the contents within.

In such an intense cauldron of fire virtually everything in Joe and Judi’s loft was lost. Joe’s prized cymbals and gongs were turned into twisted metal sculptures. The small television on top of the refrigerator at the farthest point away from the fire was melted. An old Conn tenor sax and the King baritone sax that Lovano played during his formative years in Cleveland were both charred beyond any hope of recovery while a drum set in the front of the room at the source of the fire was completely gone, vaporized like a scene from War of the Worlds. Needless to say, any paper items-photographs, music scores, books and magazines-were all lost. Stacks and stacks of records, many of which were inherited from the vinyl collection of Joe’s dad, the late Tony “Big T” Lovano, suffered irreparable smoke damage. Countless memories melted in that fire.

“The loft on 23rd Street was a place that I could play,” says Lovano, recalling the scene of many a fabled jam session over the previous 20 years. “Everybody I’ve played with throughout my career all played with me in my loft. All the different bands I’ve been in as a sideman rehearsed there as well as all the projects that I put together during that period from 1978 to 1998. And we had some real memorable parties there too. One was a surprise birthday party for Ed Blackwell in [October] 1991, a year before he passed. We figured a few close friends would drop by the pad to celebrate Blackwell, but it ended up that something like 90 people were there. It turned into a major event. Max Roach came by and gave Blackwell a ring. Ornette [Coleman] was there; Dewey [Redman] was there. It was really something, man.”

Having an active jamming parlor at his disposal 24 hours a day right in the heart of the jazz center of the universe allowed Lovano to develop faster and commune deeper with his instrument than if he had remained in his hometown of Cleveland. As he says, “If you can have a space where you can play and be creative and create your own environment, you really grow and travel through the music and the community different than if you always have to go to someone’s pad or rent a studio or whatever. So I feel really fortunate, then, for all those years to have had a space like that right there in Manhattan.”

And then, in a flash, it was gone.

Returning to the scene of the fire a couple of days later was a wrenching experience for Lovano, who in 1998 was seemingly sitting on top of the world with a Grammy nomination for 1997’s Celebrating Sinatra, loads of critical accolades, the respect and admiration of his colleagues, a growing fan base and a long-term relationship with a prestigious jazz label, Blue Note. Alto saxophonist and longtime friend Steve Slagle (a member of Lovano’s current nonet who had met Joe back in 1971 when they both attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston) recalls their futile search through the rubble that day: “Everything was basically gone. Miraculously, I found the mouthpiece for his alto in a pile of black ash. It had fallen and was protected because things fell on top of it. And as we continued searching around for anything that we could possible recover, Joe suddenly got all emotional and ran to his closet and started looking through all his clothes that were hanging there. They were all charred and blackened from smoke damage but he was saying, ‘I gotta find this tux-I played with Johnny Griffin at Carnegie Hall in that tux.’ We ended up taking that tux to the dry cleaners across the street, but the guy couldn’t do anything. It was too far gone.”

In the wake of such a devastating loss, the narrative arc of one’s life can go in one of two directions. Either you give up and plummet into a downward spiral of depression and dysfunction or you persevere and rise up from the ashes.

Joe and Judi have taken the latter path.

And now, five years later as they look out over the sprawling, fertile grounds of Villa Paradiso, which they built up from a fairly raw state over time to the lush spread that it is today, they can savor their own triumph over adversity. And perhaps everything that they’ve done since the fire-cultivating a beautiful garden, rescuing downed trees during winter ice storms, planting new trees in the spring-has been a kind of healing process for the couple. Today they seem content with their own slice of Green Acres and remain intent on moving forward. “It took a little minute to get over it all,” Lovano says of the fire. “It was hard work to filter through all that, but we tried to treat the whole experience as a cleansing. Luckily, we didn’t have to escape a fire. That would’ve been a little heavier scar to try and overcome.”

Joe Lovano’s artistic triumphs in his postfire years have been considerable. There has been a consecutive string of potent recordings for Blue Note, beginning with 1998’s Trio Fascination, Edition One (with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland) and continuing with 1999’s Friendly Fire (with labelmate and alto saxophonist Greg Osby), 2000’s 52nd Street Themes with his nonet, 2001’s Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Edition Two (with Cameron Brown and Idris Muhammad, Billy Drewes and Joey Baron, Dave Douglas and Mark Dresser) and 2002’s Viva Caruso, which explored his own Italian roots through an examination of the opera star’s repertoire from the turn of the 20th century. There is also the all-star ScoLoHoFo project (with John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland and Al Foster) that culminated with the 2003 release Oh! Lovano’s latest as a leader is On This Day…At the Vanguard, a live recording with his nonet documenting a single Sunday evening at the Village Vanguard closing out a weeklong engagement at that hallowed jazz shrine in the heart of Greenwich Village.

The saxophonist’s own connection to the Village Vanguard began with the records he devoured as a kid growing up in Cleveland as the son of a tenor sax-playing barber who cut hair by day and played bebop by night. Big T was a larger-than-life figure in Joe’s world, and his record collection was stocked with various Live at the Village Vanguard gems by the likes of John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins. And young Joe took it all in with big eyes.

“I feel so fortunate,” says Lovano, seated on a wooden bench under a willow tree in his placid backyard. “My dad was really generous, man. When I was a teenager I learned from all those records he had and also from the players that he was playing with at the time, the guys of his generation. He would bring me around to jam sessions and rehearsals, and then eventually when I started to drive I would go to his gigs and have my horn and sit in on the last set. And I studied the tunes that he was playing so I could play with the band. I wanted those cats to dig me, you know?”

At that same time, Lovano’s classmates were into Motown, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and James Brown. “That was the music of my generation,” he says. “I heard all those bands and all that music, and I was in some Motown-type bands myself, playing baritone in soul groups. And because I was trying to be a soloist I would be able to solo and play over these vamps and these simple kinds of tunes in those groups. But meanwhile, I was really influenced by Miles and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Bird and Sonny Stitt. The musicians I was hearing on my dad’s records and the music they were playing was advanced harmony and modulations and rhythm-Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Elvin [Jones]. That’s the music that captured me. I mean, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t go home from school and listen to records and try to play along with them, trying to learn those songs I was hearing them play.”

Wanting to delve deeper into the music himself, Lovano moved to Boston to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music, but New York beckoned. He began visiting the Big Apple in 1973, soaking in the sounds at the Vanguard during each trip he made, and eventually moved there in 1976 following a stint of roadwork with organist “Brother” Jack McDuff. “Coming to New York and really developing within this world, the jazz community of New York, has been incredible, man,” Lovano says. “Meeting people like Clifford Jordan, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman, Junior Cook and being able to go and hear them at the Vanguard or wherever they were playing-I mean, I studied with them, every phrase they played, you know?”

Lovano’s playing experience at the Village Vanguard began in 1979 following three valuable years on the road with Woody Herman’s big band. “The first time I really played there was when I sat in with the Thad [Jones] and Mel [Lewis] band soon after I got off Woody’s band. I used to go there a lot and hear some amazing music in there-Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Woody Shaw, Barry Harris’ group with Vernell Fournier and Jamil Nasser. I had a chance to sit in and play with Bill Evans there once with Joe LaBarbera and Marc Johnson the year before Bill passed. And I used to sit in with Elvin’s band a few times and also remember sitting in there with Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan one time.”

In 1980, shortly after Thad Jones broke up his partnership with Mel Lewis and relocated to Copenhagen, Lovano joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra and began playing at the Village Vanguard every Monday night for the next 10 years until the leader passed away in February 1990. Lovano’s own first live recording at the Village Vanguard recording came in 1982 with the Mel Lewis Orchestra’s Make Me Smile (Finesse), which featured new compositions and arrangements by trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. “On this recording, Brookmeyer wrote a piece for me, a piece for Jim McNeely, a piece for Dick Oatts, a piece for Tom Harrell and one for himself and Mel. It was incredible to work with Brookmeyer and Mel together because Bob was on the original band with Thad and Mel, and it was a beautiful continuation into some new music during that period.”

The first gig he did as a leader at the Village Vanguard came in 1991, shortly after the release of his Landmarks album (which was originally released on Toshiba/EMI and later picked up by Blue Note). “The group was a combination of the musicians from that recording and the quartet I had been working with at the time, including John Abercrombie on guitar, Rufus Reid on bass, Tom Harrell on trumpet and Ed Blackwell on drums,” Lovano recalls. “This was during a beautiful period, from ’89 to ’91, that I was playing a lot with Blackwell. I had done my first recording with him earlier that year [January 1991] for Enja called The Sounds of Joy with Anthony Cox on bass. Then we recorded together again later in the year [December 1991] for my first official Blue Note album, From the Soul, with Dave Holland, Michel Petrucciani and Blackwell on drums. A couple of months later, Blackwell passed.”

Lovano cut his first live recording as a leader at the Village Vanguard on March 12, 1994. That set of music with trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Billy Hart comprised disc one of his powerful, double-CD outing Quartets. Disc two documented two separate nights at the Vanguard (January 20 and 22, 1995) with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash.

The prolific sax man’s working association with the Village Vanguard began during the Max Gordon era and continues with the current reign of his wife, Lorraine Gordon, who took over the club when her husband died in 1989. “Max Gordon was incredible,” Lovano fondly recalls. “He was this far-out character who was always there. For the longest time that I was playing with Mel’s band I didn’t even know that he was aware of me that much. I was gone one time-it might’ve been after I was on the band already a year. I went on tour for an extended period with Paul [Motian] and then with Carla Bley’s band, so I missed a bunch of Mondays. And when I came back, Max looks at me and he goes, ‘Whereya been?’ And that made me feel so good, that he actually realized that I wasn’t there for five or six weeks. He was a real character, man, but he would be there every night and listen and dig the music. That’s really something special, you know. And Lorraine now, since Max’s passing, has really carried that on too, man. She’s there all the time and really involved with all the groups that are presented there.”

This past summer Lovano toured with his Street Band (Judi Silvano on flute and vocals, Billy Drewes on reeds and percussion, Gil Goldstein on accordion, Michael Bocian on guitar, Ed Schuller and Scott Lee on basses and Carmen Castaldi on drums) playing music from Viva Caruso. He continues to hit the festival and club circuit with Paul Motian’s trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and with his own celebrated nonet, and Lovano also recently toured as a special guest with Chucho Valdés’ trio. Recent recorded activities for Lovano include a session with Blue Note labelmate Pat Martino for the guitarist’s upcoming Think Tank CD featuring Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom Lovano has had numerous duet collaborations with over the past five years. There’s also talk of going into the studio with the mighty saxophone ensemble that he’s played with over the past few years featuring Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman.

Lovano’s next recording as a leader for Blue Note is a ballads project with the great pianist Hank Jones, bassist George Mraz and longtime collaborator Motian, with whom he has been playing with since 1981. “We’re going to be playing beautiful songs and trying to play them as creative as possible; to create these songs, not to just kind of play the song for the song’s sake but try to make the tunes your own. It’s going to be a collection of different things, like Thad’s tune ‘The Summary’ from Suite for Pops, Dizzy’s tune ‘I Waited for You’ and a few standards. I want to make a really beautiful record, man, playing in open ways, different ways. I’m gonna play ‘Countdown’ like the beautiful song that it is. And I’m going to do an unaccompanied piece of Coltrane’s, ‘Peace on Earth,’ with gongs.”

He seems particularly excited about the prospect of recording with Hank Jones, who turned 85 this summer. “To play with him is like something you never feel,” Lovano says. “It’s like playing with Teddy Wilson or Art Tatum or something. The tempo and the groove-man, it’s like nothing else. Hank Jones influenced every great piano player that you could name. You can hear Hank’s influence in Herbie’s playing or Wynton Kelly’s playing. The cats who are playing today on the scene-Brad Mehldau and these guys that came through Bill Evans-were all indirectly influenced by Hank, because you can hear how Hank influenced Bill with a certain elegant sound and harmony and feeling. And I’m also so excited to get Hank and Paul together on this next album. They played together in the ’60s. That’s going to be a really beautiful collaboration. I can hear it and feel it already.”

There’s always something new just up ahead for this unusually open-minded cat-a world of possibilities yet to dive into. “Time moves on and when you stay open, things happen,” Lovano says. “That’s why I don’t like just having one band. I have too many relationships with so many musicians on all different instruments that I want to explore. It’s a thrill to be able to put a group together with other saxophone players, for example, or to work with a freer ensemble and have other voices around me and not just to be the solo horn voice. I’m really inspired by playing off of other sounds and playing textures together with other instruments and lead players. So it’s great to be involved in all these different situations because it all fuels my imagination when I do my own projects as a leader and organizer. And I’m playing with some of the greatest innovators in the music that have created not only their own voices and personalities through the music but have opened the door for other players to be themselves.

“We live in an amazing world of music today with collaborations and things that have been churning for years. There’s a lot of new music out here, and it’s a lot about the people. It’s all about relationships and how you can bring in your influences and see if you can be free enough to not just play at people but to try and create music together. That’s where the new music is, for me. It always has been,” he says, gazing out over his own paradise.

Originally Published