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Joe Lovano Gets Universal

The vaunted saxophonist debuts a new, wide-ranging octet at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Joe Lovano at the 2019 Detroit Jazz Festival
Joe Lovano at the 2019 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Steven Hauptman)

“A lot of times, I think jazz is too restricted to a style,” saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano says. “When you’re a younger player, you study styles, and you have to play in styles because you don’t know anything else. As you develop as an improviser, those things are inside your playing, and you relate to the moment. It’s a freer-flowing expression.”

This weekend (Oct. 18 and 19) in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room in New York, Lovano will undoubtedly be relating to many moments—and roaming both within and beyond styles—as he unveils his latest group, the Joe Lovano Universal Jazz Ensemble. Its lineup may induce double-takes in some observers: vocalist Judi Silvano (also Lovano’s wife), trumpeter Graham Haynes, guitarist Liberty Ellman, pianist and longtime Lovano colleague Kenny Werner, bassist John Patitucci, and a drumming duo of some note, Andrew Cyrille and Tyshawn Sorey.

“It’s a diverse ensemble that’s multigenerational,” Lovano says. “Throughout my whole lifetime I’ve been involved in that kind of exploration. I think it comes from when I was a teenager trying to play with my dad and the musicians in his generation, and that gave me a confidence that led me to be in the Woody Herman band in my early twenties. Of course, Kenny and Judi and I have created such a close relationship over the years; that turns it into a family band, and everybody else is drawn into that. I’ve known Graham for a number of years but I haven’t played with him much, and nobody in the group has because he’s mostly been in Paris, so that seemed a good reason to do this. Tyshawn and Andrew both take a compositional approach to the drums, which is great, and they know how to share space. Andrew may still be best known for playing with Cecil Taylor and other avant-garde people, but he can do anything—he’s one of the swingingest cats ever.”

If you’ve followed Lovano’s career for a while, the name of this group may remind you of his 1992 Blue Note album Universal Language, which also featured Silvano and Werner. And sure enough, the ensemble’s four sets over two nights will include some material from that disc. But there’ll be plenty more as well. “I wrote some new pieces that give different directions inside the music, inside the beat, inside the way we can play together,” Lovano reports. “One of them is just for trumpet, saxophone, and voice. But most of them use different combinations of people within the rhythm section—trio, quartet, and quintet moments—and little episodes that happen between all of us, unaccompanied moments before you go back into larger forms. There’s a lot of music within the music, let’s say.”

Lovano explains that some of the new pieces were inspired by his recent Trio Tapestry project with pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi. “There’s some real 12-tone ideas,” he says, “where all tones are equal and you can create all these possibilities within the harmony. That definitely comes out of working with Gunther Schuller and Bob Brookmeyer through the years. I feel like it’s all just starting to really come together for me in that way compositionally, so I’m thrilled to have everybody available to play these couple of nights.”

One thing is certain: No matter whether the music is swinging or Schoenberg-ian (or both), the improviser’s art will be fully on display. “I go hear so many bands now,” Lovano notes, “and I’m listening to the cats read. I’m not hearing anybody play. Well, I want to have a band where, when people come and hear us, they’re gonna hear us play.”

For more information and tickets to the Joe Lovano Universal Jazz Ensemble shows, go to

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.