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Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano with Us Five


  • photo by Jimmy Katz
  • Joe Lovano

Saxophonist Joe Lovano was raised on jazz. Growing up in Cleveland, he learned music from his dad, Tony "Big T" Lovano, who led a jazz combo. Joe picked up the sax at the age of 6; when he finished high school he headed for Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He went on to work with and learn from a wide range of jazz greats from organists Jack McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith to big band legends Woody Herman and Mel Lewis. In the '80s Lovano joined guitarist John Scofield's quartet and explored free jazz in a bass-less trio with Bill Frisell and the innovative drummer/composer Paul Motian.

Thirty years later Lovano is still searching for new horizons. Earlier this year he released Cross Culture, his 23rd record for Blue Note, his third for his Us Five quintet with bassist Esperanza Spalding, James Weidman on piano and dual drummers, Lovano's longtime bandmate Otis Brown III and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela.

You might wonder how Lovano landed rising star Spaulding as his bass player. She leads her own band and took home the Grammy for "Best New Artist" in 2011 (beating out Justin Bieber and Drake among others), then played at last year's Academy Awards. Yes, she's in demand. In 2008, before her rise and Us Five, Spaulding and drummer Mela were both at Berklee, where Lovano was on the staff. The band started as something like a faculty trio before Brown and Weidman were added to make five.

This time out Lovano comes armed with more than a saxophone. "Since I started to tour in the late '70s, I've collected instruments from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe and North and South America," said Lovano in notes on the new album. The Cross Culture sessions found him shifting from his usual tenor and soprano saxes to a tarogato, a Hungarian instrument similar to a clarinet, and an aulochrome, a double soprano sax crafted for him by the Belgian instrument maker Francious Louis.

When Lovano isn't blowing a horn, he's adding his own percussion colors with bells, shakers or a Nigerian slit drum called an oborom. "I've spent a lifetime feeling the passion of experiencing the spirits in the sounds of the collective ancestors in these instruments, creating music but feeling like the earth," said Lovano.

What's the sound of the earth? Listen closely and you'll hear it when CenterArts joins forces with the Redwood Jazz Alliance to present Joe Lovano with Us Five in concert at HSU's Van Duzer Theater on Sunday, Jan. 27, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35, $15 for HSU students and are available at the ticket office, 826-3948, or at

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