The idea for saxophonist Joe Lovano’s new CD, “Celebrating Sinatra,” didn’t originate with some savvy record company executive looking for a sales-boosting commercial hook. Instead, the inspiration came from two, more pedestrian, though in Lovano’s eyes, more important, sources: his mother and his Aunt Rosie.
Speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment, Lovano laughed as he told how the two women indoctrinated him with all things Sinatra while he was a child in Cleveland, listening to Sinatra’s music on the radio around the house, attending his concerts (sometimes traveling great distances to do so) and seeing his movies. In the liner notes to the album (on the Blue Note label), Lovano writes that his aunt and mother influenced the repertoire for the project even as he was growing up.
“That’s right,” he said. “Then when I told them I was going to record [a Sinatra album], they rattled off a thousand songs for me to do. My aunt has to be his biggest fan. She’ll go anywhere to see him.”
Lovano doesn’t really need a commercial hook to draw attention to his albums. The 44-year-old saxophonist has received two Grammy nominations this year for his last quartet recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Blue Note). Both the readers’ and critics’ polls of Down Beat magazine have voted him “Jazz Musician of the Year” two years straight, as well as picking “Live at the Village Vanguard” the 1996 album of the year. Lovano brings a quartet to the Founder’s Hall at the Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday.
Introduced to the saxophone by his father, tenor-saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano, the young Lovano attended Boston’s Berklee School of Music and went on to work with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd in the late 1970s and the Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1980s.
When he began leading groups, Lovano became known for his eclectic stance. Proof of this can be heard on the recently released “Joe Lovano Wind Ensemble: Worlds” (Evidence), a 1989 European concert recording with electric guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Paul Motian. His reputation as a muscular, take-no-prisoners saxophonist was already well in place by that time.
Jazz composer and historian Gunther Schuller, with whom Lovano collaborated on the landmark 1995 CD “Rush Hour” (Blue Note), has been quoted as saying that Lovano has “sovereign command” over his instrument. Those who hear his big, lusty tone, technical facility and sweeping sense of dynamics will agree. But Lovano’s attraction, as “Rush Hour” and now “Celebrating Sinatra” attest, comes from more than just his strong tenor playing.
Ten years ago, he didn’t even rate an entry in the ultra-comprehensive Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz. But since coming into his own in the ‘90s, Lovano has become an interminable experimenter who has embraced a variety of formats. He has recorded ambitious projects with strings and brass ensembles, likes to employ the human voice, though not always singing lyrics (usually the ethereal tones come from singer and Lovano spouse Judi Silvano) and fronts a cello-woodwind ensemble with which he frequently tours. Many of the tunes on the Sinatra album find him backed by an orchestra with arrangements written by respected composer Manny Albam.
Sinatra’s 80th birthday provided the saxophonist with the motivation for the ambitiously orchestrated project.
“I’d been wanting to do a standards project, and with all these birthday events going on, and with my background, [Sinatra] seemed like the thing to do. Lots of cats have been doing Billie Holiday albums lately, like [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard. Sinatra was her contemporary. He’s been around since the late ‘30s. I wanted to celebrate him while he was still here.”
The Sinatra mystique to which he was exposed at an early age was a big part of the attraction.
“For me, Sinatra was the hippest, most swinging personality in music. He’s an ageless character in a world where most ageless characters die young. Charlie Parker is an ageless character but he died in his 30s. Sinatra has maintained that grace, that ageless character all through his life.”
Sinatra’s my-way ability to be his own man is another big factor in Lovano’s admiration.
“There’s been millions of cats who have tried to copy Sinatra and they all sound terrible. It’s like a saxophonist trying to copy Lester Young. You can only take it so far.
“I like musicians who have something of their own to say. [The copyists] aren’t playing from their life, from their experience. Today, too many musicians sound alike, they learn out of books, they all try to sound like somebody else. Back in Sinatra’s day, cats were proud. They didn’t want to sound like anybody else.”
All of which explains the importance Lovano attaches to his own individuality. The Sinatra album “gave me a chance to get deep into who I am and where I came from, to show people my origins. That’s how I learned to play my instrument, from playing songs, standards, the Great American Songbook. As a jazz musician today, I want to be my own player. I want to play from my history, from where I’ve been. That’s the essence of my jazz.”
Still, like Miles Davis before him, Lovano says he learned much about phrasing listening to the Sinatra.
“I was studying the way [saxophonist] Ben Webster played and then went back and listened to some things that Sinatra did around the same time and and found they were doing the same thing, they approached it almost the same way. You could hear the parallels.”
Though Lovano’s Orange County shows--with pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Yoron Israel and drummer Dennis Irwin--will more reflect the music heard on the Grammy-nominated “Live at the Village Vanguard” recording, the saxophonist promises to do some numbers from the Sinatra album as well as some tunes connected with the singer that he hasn’t recorded.
And, just for the record, what do Mom and Aunt Rosie think of “Celebrating Sinatra?”
“They’re just thrilled with it,” Lovano said, laughing.
* The Joe Lovano Quartet performs Friday and Saturday at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. $30. (714) 556-2787.