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Joe Lovanos' jazz: intense and cerebral

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Sep. 1--Jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano doesn't make recordings. He crafts intense, cerebral, joyous musical projects, which sometimes get recorded.

The difference might seem insignificant, but in a mainstream jazz climate dominated by cookie-cutter originals and microwaved standards, Lovano's prodigious output sets him apart from many of his peers.

Past Lovano projects have explored the music of Enrico Caruso and Frank Sinatra, two musical staples of Lovano's Cleveland childhood and personal favorites of Lovano's saxophone playing father, Tony "Big T" Lovano.

The younger Lovano's projects have also examined the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, whose quirky compositions aren't often a first-choice for mainstream jazz musicians. If Lovano were a cliff diver, he'd get degree-of-difficulty bonus points.

Lovano's most recent effort, "Streams of Expression," is inspired by Miles Davis and in particular the late trumpeter's classic, ground-breaking collaboration with arranger and composer Gil Evans, "Birth of the Cool." The saxophonist's nine-piece touring group, the Joe Lovano Nonet, performs music from the recording today at Lafayette College.

The recording offers a slightly expanded take on sections of the 1959 Davis recording. Noted arranger Gunther Schuller created new versions of three tunes from the original, "Moon Dreams," "Move" and "Boplicity," a tune Gil Evans wrote but credited to Cleo Henry, Davis' mother. Each newly arranged tune has a new beginning or end -- Lovano and Schuller call these "preludes" and "postludes."

Lovano also wrote seven other tunes, some dedicated to Davis or other jazz greats, including Rahassan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. The recording's opening selection, the Lovano-penned "Streams," is dedicated to Schuller.

Lovano originally wanted to premiere the recording's central component, "The Birth of the Cool Suite," at the 1991 Monterey Jazz Festival, but events of Sept. 11, 2001, canceled the event and postponed several dates of a tour that was to follow the premiere.

"I wanted to release the 'Birth of the Cool Suite" on Miles' 75th birthday, but as it turned out, we released it [this year] on his 80th," says Lovano.

The delay may have benefited the music. When the music didn't debut as scheduled, Lovano put the suite into his band's book, or the musical catalog a group takes with them on the road. "It was great that we were able to live with the music for a while, play it in different settings," says Lovano.

"Streams of Expression" marks the second time Lovano has collaborated with Schuller, a noted composer and arranger who was once strongly associated with Third Stream, a ambitious jazz movement now all but forgotten except by critics and jazz historians. It merged elements of jazz improvisation with classical music.

Lovano's 1995 recording, "Rush Hour," based on jazz from the 1950s Manhattan, was also arranged by Schuller.

"My ensemble is about my playing," says Lovano, who makes a distinction between groups where the composer is the primary focus and groups where a musician is the primary writer and creative spark. Lovano writes most of the music for his groups, but it's the playing by the band members that drives the compositions, he says.

"Every piece is a vehicle to explore, to be creative from within, and not only around the written part. Much of the jazz solo is a fill-in space.

I take a little different approach. With Gil Evans and Miles Davis, the focus was on the playing, that was leading the music. Gil wrote around [Davis]. That is how Gunther approached our suite."

The original "Birth of the Cool" recording marked a significant shift in jazz at the time, which was dominated by bop and post-bop players, who tended to play fast and hard. The Davis/Evans approach was calmer, more contemplative -- a subtle meditation on the composer's original theme -- and when it was released, "Birth of the Cool" appealed to a wider audience than most jazz of the day.

There are recognizable bits of the original "Birth of the Cool" in Lovano and Schuller's "Birth of the Cool Suite," but the music has been altered significantly, especially in its instrumentation.

"Gunther really arranged 'Moon Dreams' for me to play," says Lovano. "It's from 'Birth of the Cool' but it is nothing like the 'Moon Dreams' you'd hear if you played the original. It's the same song, the same form, but Gunther wrote his piece for tenor. There was no tenor [saxophone] on 'Birth of the Cool'."

"Streams of Expression" is also Lovano's nod to the rich history of jazz, something that he feels is critical if the music is to stay alive and vibrant.

"So many young players have such a shallow depth of the history of the instrument," says Lovano. "You have to know the history of every instrument to really play. The players who do, they know how to fit in and they know what is happening. The players that don't, you can see that. You can't learn out of a book. You have to live it and try to experience it. My dad and his peers, they were natural players. They played with a lot of soul and feeling. That's how I learned."



Copyright (c) 2006, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

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