By filling a rare hole in multi-reedman Joe Lovano’s crusher schedule, the Wharton Center popped one of the world’s greatest jazz players on top of East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, like a great, big, goateed cherry. They also added another festival to the festival.
At least that’s how an exuberant Lovano described his latest group, Us Five, and its dynamic two-drummer lineup.
“We have, of course, a full quintet,” Lovano said. “We have five quartets that can emerge. We have 10 trios, nine duos and five unaccompanied voices also. There’s so many things that can happen when you have a rhythm section like that.”
Despite a shelf full of Grammys, umpteen Down Beat magazine poll triumphs, and ominous critical nudges into the “living legend” category, Lovano, 57, isn’t holding still long enough for an oil portrait. In addition to Us Five, he’s leading a nonet, doing regular gigs with piano legend McCoy Tyner, and touring with the Saxophone Summit, where he plumbs the depths of John Coltrane’s late music with fellow tenormen Ravi Coltrane and Dave Liebman.
Jazz lovers are accustomed to the variety and vitality of Lovano’s projects, but Us Five has proven exceptional, even in Lovano-land. Last year’s CD, “Folk Art,” landed at or near the top in every critical poll.
“My band consists of players in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and I’m in my 50s,” Lovano said. “So the energy and the whole flow is very free. They are playing from their natural feelings, and are hungry to play.”
Pianist James Weidman, drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown II and bassist Peter Slavov are all formidable creators in their own right. (As the group’s original bassist, Esperanza Spalding, rockets to solo stardom, Bulgarian-born Slavov has been filling in.)
The group’s task, Lovano explained, is “not just to play at the same time, but play together and shape the music.”
Reached by phone last Thursday, Lovano was still high from a “beautiful” Us Five gig at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival. When the group formed three years ago, Lovano recalled, he gave them explicit arrangements and actively shaped the music’s direction on the bandstand.
“But now we’re playing with such a high level of communication, we don’t have to speak about it so much,” he said. “It’s a beautiful flow for the audience to watch unfold.”
In recent years, Lovano cultivated a rewarding partnership with nonagenarian piano legend Hank Jones, who died last month.
Lovano said he loves to “play between the generations” by working with both older and younger musicians, but warned against putting too much emphasis on age.
“Hank, at 90, was playing fresh as a daisy,” Lovano said. “And there’s some cats in their 20s who are playing old and rusty.”
Lovano grew up in Cleveland under the tutelage of his saxophone-playing dad, Tony “Big T” Lovano.
“He had a great record collection.” Lovano said. When stars like Dizzy Gillespie or Lester Young blew through Cleveland, Lovano got to hang. “When I was 20, I had already had sat in with Elvin Jones,” he said.
In high school, Lovano became fascinated with tradition-stretchers (and smashers) like Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. After studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Lovano moved to New York, where he apprenticed in greasy organ trios and crack big bands of Woody Herman and Mel Lewis.
He also rented a loft where the landlord let him jam until midnight — often with two drummers.
Such wide-ranging experiences gave Lovano a rare talent for seamlessly blending traditional jazz forms with expressive, “out” blowing a la Coltrane and Coleman.
“I’m not looking at it in terms of playing ‘in’ or ‘out,’” he said. “To me, it’s all rhythm, it’s all melody, it’s all harmony, you know? People that get stuck into playing ‘in’ or ‘out,’ or this way or that way, aren’t really improvising. They’re playing what they practiced.”
To Lovano, jazz has its roots in the blues, “a natural flowing life force,” much like the folk music of North Africa, Asia, Indonesia and other parts of the world. “A lot of folk music of the world is more rhythmic based and played over drones or a rhythmic pattern that repeats,” Lovano said.
What jazz contributes, Lovano explained, is a sophisticated harmonic approach, absorbed in part from standards and Broadway — “tunes that modulate within keys and have inner structures of the harmonies.” Jazz also soaks up non-blues folk traditions from around the world; Lovano pointed to Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite” and Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban forays as examples.
“So I’m trying to live in all those worlds and put some ideas together from those inspirations,” Lovano said.
Of course, about 10,000 jazz musicians are trying to do the same thing, often coming up with clever but inert collages of ideas. Lovano’s openness and spontaneity keeps all his “projects” raw and in the moment — from his luminous trio recordings with drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Bill Frisell to 2009’s massive “Symphonica.”
The weight of tradition is no weight at all to Lovano. He loves nothing more than to lovingly list his favorite jazz artists, from stars like Charlie Parker (focus of the upcoming Us Five CD) to insider favorites like pianist Andrew Hill and saxman Clifford Jordan.
“I really live within that library of sounds and spirits of recorded music,” Lovano said. “The more I listen, the more I’m inspired to be myself.”