In an era of "smooth" radio formats, jazz needs all the good PR it can get. Purists may point to "straight-ahead" traditional jazz as the bastion of legitimacy, but this style can be off-putting to the rest of us. It can get old watching one guy on stage spit out frantic, blurring notes while his backups drone through the number.
Veteran sax player and composer Joe Lovano knows the scene all too well. "I think jazz is a wide, beautiful world of music," he says. "But it's not jazz to me if a drummer plays a repetitive beat for like, 20 minutes, ya dig?"
Lovano, whose 1952 baby photos picture him with saxophone in hand, grew up perfecting a spontaneous, experimental style under the tutelage of his father, saxman Tony "Big T" Lovano, as well as jazz greats who'd pass through his native Cleveland. Young Joe would go on to become one of the most respected, versatile and enduring tenor sax players of the past 40 years, reeling in Grammy awards, Musician of the Year titles and an honorary post at the Berklee College of Music.
It's fitting, then, that Lovano was handpicked by the folks of the Monterrey Jazz Festival to perform the Birth of the Cool Suite. The piece is an homage to the legendary, oft-sampled Miles Davis Birth of the Cool album. Arranged by former Cool band member Gunther Schuller, the suite was originally slated for a 2001 performance to commemorate Davis's 75th birthday, but it was postponed because of the 9/11 attacks. Now, Lovano and his nonet, a nine-member unit reminiscent of Davis's 1949 band, plan to give the suite its proper debut.
"Miles was a trip, man," says Lovano. "He was one mystical character, but he had his own voice. He explored a lot of music, loved to play with people and was a catalyst for putting together groups and inspiring people. Everyone who played in his band was free to be themselves, play and contribute."
Lovano brings the same approach. Instead of a group of backups with one star, his performances feature nine soloists, all "playing off each other's solos, creating tones and images," he says. Where so many old-school bandleaders (see Conan O'Brien's Max Weinberg) use other musicians as backdrops, Lovano showcases his surrounding talent.
"It's truly egoless playing," he says. "With my nonet, people are going to hear nine guys soloing at any time," he says. "They'll remember who and what they heard, not just some bandleader."
Lovano is one of the few surviving jazzers today who are old enough and experienced enough to link the genre's glorious past to its present-day doldrums, with record companies balking at investing in real talent. But he plays down the industry's crisis, saying it's the players -- past and future -- who keep it breathing. "It's funny," he says. "Record companies come and go, but good players who are serious live on, develop and become truly great."
The modest cat from Cleveland, who's become famous for pushing the limits of jazz while keeping it real, might as well be talking about himself.