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Joe Lovano Dips Into History For '52nd Street Theme'

Award-winning saxophonist goes for a mid-century New York feel on nonet project.

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano goes back to his Cleveland roots by way of New York's storied 52nd street on 52nd Street Themes, his new CD on Blue Note, in stores Tuesday (April 25).

The new project, a nonet, is yet another departure for Lovano, but a logical one.

"This nonet project was in the works for a long time," he said. "It comes from my experience playing with some great big bands in the '70s and the '80s, like drummer Mel Louis', clarinetist Woody Herman's, those with pianist Carla Bley, bassist Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra, etc. Those experiences have been a strong foundation as far as ensemble playing. It's been a beautiful journey to this point to develop a nonet of musicians that I've grown with over the last 25 years."

Lovano, 47, has emerged as one of the hottest saxophonists of the past decade, and he did it the hard way. While record companies have been falling over themselves to promote young players with snazzy images but no track records, Lovano has built on more than 20 years of serious work.

"Joe is like a borderless country," said alto player Greg Osby, who worked with Lovano on 1999's Friendly Fire. "There are no boundaries for him; and those that exist he crosses with ease and grace. His playing also is really a reflection of his personality."

A Place In Time

The album's title refers to the Manhattan street that in the '40s and '50s was home to legendary clubs such as Birdland, the Three Deuces and the Cafe Bohemia. For the project, Lovano hired as orchestrator Willie "Face" Smith, who worked with composer-arranger Tadd Dameron in the '50s.

"The music coming from 52nd street with Miles [Davis], Ben Webster, Dizzy [Gillespie], [Thelonious] Monk — all of those guys — was inspirational music," Lovano said. "The feeling of where Birdland used to be is still there. That's what I'm after on this record. That magic of spontaneity that they really got after."

Before becoming a leader on a regular basis, Lovano was part of drummer Paul Motian's trio with guitarist Bill Frisell. He also was in guitarist John Scofield's quartet. Both bands were high points in '80s jazz.

"He's very sonically aware — he thinks about the effect different instruments and different personalities will have," Scofield said. "He was perfect for what I was doing — his sense of swing and his tone reminded me of the older guys, in a really positive way."

Lovano's rise to prominence as a leader of forward-looking bands seemed to happen in a rush in the mid-1990s. He suddenly began to rack up prestigious awards and Grammy nominations, including for Best Jazz Small Group Album, Tenor Legacy, in 1994, and for Best Large Ensemble in 1995 for Rush Hour. In 1995 Lovano was named Jazz Artist of the Year in both the Down Beat critics and readers polls and called Tenor Player of the Year in the readers poll.

His recordings for Blue Note rang the changes from project to project, taking in the subtle orchestral textures of 1995's Rush Hour, the fiery trio improvisations of 1998's Trio Fascination, the elegantly beautiful treatments of classic songs on 1997's Celebrating Sinatra, and 1996's free-wheeling small combos captured live at the Village Vanguard. Last year saw the blowing session with Osby and a tour with trumpeter Nicholas Payton playing Ellington's small group book.

Lovano also performs in one of pianist McCoy Tyner's occasional quintets, sharing the bandstand with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charnett Moffett — a straight-ahead jazz cauldron if ever there was one.

Young's Mentors

The older guys who influenced Lovano include his father, saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano, and alto saxophonist and arranger Smith.

"The biggest thrill for me was to include Willie "Face" Smith on the new CD," Lovano said. "He was a friend of my dad's in Cleveland and studied with composer arranger and pianist Tadd Dameron and was his copyist in the '50s. Willie is a great saxophonist and teacher. I played with him while touring with organist Jack McDuff in '73 in a band of four saxes, organ, guitar and drums. Willie would write out arrangements in the car on the road, half asleep. It was amazing."

Five of Dameron's tunes orchestrated by Smith are on 52nd Street Themes. "If You Could See Me Now" (RealAudio excerpt), which leads off the record, is a beautiful ballad featuring a lush orchestration and Lovano's full upper-register sound. The tune, which a young Sarah Vaughan also recorded, is a favorite of Lovano's. "Just a gorgeous tune with a nice chart from Willie."

Lovano's "Charlie Chan" (RealAudio excerpt), which features the three-tenor lineup of Lovano, George Garzone and Ralph Lalama, as well as trumpeter Tim Hagans, also has a bit of history for its name. The tune is based on "Milestones," the first record that Miles Davis made as a leader. The Davis recording featured an alto player called Charlie Chan, who was really Charlie Parker trying to elude a label contract.

Lovano said the CD is "an ensemble of not only great players but guys who have been important parts of my life. I think that it is really important to play music and develop within the community you're in. Guys like Denis Irwin on bass and Lewis Nash on drums — damn, the sparks just fly. Man, it was just beautiful to sit down with pianist John Hicks and play [Ellington's] Passion Flower (RealAudio excerpt) without so much as a discussion before launching in."