Joe Lovano’s creative mastery puts him among the top professionals who ever picked up the tenor saxophone. Lovano is considered by professionals, critics, and jazz enthusiasts as one of the most creative and brilliant improvisers alive today. I had the opportunity to interview Lovano in 2009 and gained insight regarding his journey toward the attainment of improvisational mastery.
Lovano credits his father as being his fist major influence and first real teacher. “Big T” Tony Lovano was a barber who moonlighted as a bebop tenor saxophonist. Tony was born in 1925 and played in and around Cleveland when Joe was growing up. His generation of musicians includes Max Roach (1923), John Coltrane (1926), and Miles Davis (1926). Cleveland born pianist Tad Dameron was also part of this influential group of musicians. Dameron played with the elder Lovano who taught his son many of those tunes. Consequently, the young Lovano was constantly hearing the language before he became a player. His father was thoroughly immersed in the musical scene in Cleveland within the African-American community, and many of those players were influential in his development. He believes that being brought up in such an environment rich in the jazz culture naturally promoted his musical development. It was during this time that he “developed a passion for listening to other musicians and fantasized about playing with them.” The desire to be appreciated by his father’s generation fueled his passion for playing. He credits his father for teaching him all this musical culture. Music was very important in the household. When asked how much of his early exposure to an immersion in the jazz culture influenced or contributed to his development as a jazz musician Lovano replied: “one hundred percent…I was lucky that it was in a real early time when I was learning the mechanics of my instrument and the theory of music at the same time and was aware of the multi-cultural world of jazz.”
As a young college student in 1971, Lovano fondly recalls his time at Berklee college of music in Boston as a time of discovery, where the people who made the deepest impression on him were some Brazilian students like trumpeter Claudio Roditti, saxophonist Victor Brasil, drummer Claudio Kareem, and others who played in the language of Charlie Parker but had a unique and different feel. Lovano quickly became fast friends with these foreign musicians and learned a great deal from the interaction with them, citing that this was the first time he was exposed to players with cultural influences from outside of the USA.
Lovano talks about a similar epiphany after joining the Woody Herman band in 1976 where he played alongside Frank Tiberi who Lovano says “is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. Every time he took his horn out and played he’d never play the same thing. He’s a totally free player within the music that he played.” From that time forward, Lovano has gained an incredible amount of confidence through experience and the opportunity to play with and learn from countless other musicians. From this perspective he concludes that:
“Experience brings wisdom and knowledge of how to translate in musical terms where you’ve come from and how you got there. Each period of your personal development as a musician has to be held close to you…to let things evolve and build a stronger foundation all of the time. No matter what level you get to, every day becomes a summation of where you’ve been, where you’ve traveled.”
Reflections on Creativity
What does Lovano believe to be the essential elements of creativity and original thought in improvisation? Lovano realized early on in his development that “there is a difference between being a disciple and a clone.” By listening deeply to his father’s record collections he recalls thinking that a musician’s voice carries with it more than just the notes, rhythms, and the technical elements.
“I would hear Sonny Stitt, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, and others play on the same tune. It’s then that I realized that the voice is all about your tone, your attitude, your ideas, your ear, the intervals that you play, and your conception of improvisation.”
Vibraphonist, jazz musician, and Berklee College professor Dave Samuels explains in the January 2009 issue of “Jazz Education” magazine:
Most musicians never learn to speak the musical language. They can read, but they can’t speak without having notes written on a page. They also never can learn the grammar of the musical language. Learning how to speak the musical language is not difficult- anyone can do it. The challenge is to have something worth saying when you speak the language. The difference between an OK improviser and a great improviser is not the skill- technique or memorization- it’s the concept and content. We all learn how to write in school, however, that does not make us all great authors.
Lovano echoes the thoughts of Samuels regarding the concept and content of improvisation:
When you learn how to play from memorizing patterns, riffs, and licks and repeat those things no matter how beautiful they are, you’re going to play the same solo on every tune. How many times are you going to play over a C7 chord in your lifetime? To actually use those tones and make shapes with them has to come from what you’re feeling, and not just what you’ve practiced on your horn. What Dave is talking about is developing a concept and an approach and a way of playing for yourself that translates your personal feelings. Lester Young played from his heart and soul, and he played on that same C7 chord that we play on. It wasn’t like he was just running scales and arpeggios, he was saying something in the piece of music- it’s like your attitude- it’s not what you play: it’s how you play it. There are so many ways to say “I love you”. So many musicians… they reach for the same place every time they play, so all of their solos [sound] like the same exercise.
Joe Lovano, 2009.
Christian Wissmuller, “Dave Samuels: Acheiving One Unified Voice,” Jazz Ed 2009.