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Creative spark keeps jazz artist on fire

The jazz world speaks of Joe Lovano in trumpeting tones reserved for someone of savior status. And to many, he is that. As the genre sinks further into a pop-oriented sound, Lovano's scholarly tenor sax work has been a beacon for post-bop era enthusiasts who are a little short on living heroes these days.

Embracing the sonority and focus of such long-gone reed forebears as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, as well as injecting his own inventiveness, Lovano sits comfortably wherever the jazz world places him. Lately that has been on a high pedestal.

That ability to be safely straight-ahead and creatively edgy at the same time was perhaps the reason Lovano was so appropriately named Down Beat magazine's Jazz Artist of the Year in its 1995 and 1996 critics' and readers' polls and won the magazine's award for Jazz Album of the Year in 1995 for Rush Hour. The album also earned a Grammy nomination. Add to that the fact that his half-dozen Blue Note albums are among the label's most consistent sellers, and you see why he is a hot property.

"I'm fortunate in that jazz has always presented me with a challenge," said the 43-year-old Lovano in a recent interview. "Whether it be in a quartet setting or a big band, I've always tried to tap into the drive of the music, to find that creative spark that's always waiting for a musician to challenge it."

Lovano considers himself a product of diverse influences, each tugging at different parts of his musical persona. His father, a player of renown in the Cleveland club scene, gave him an appreciation of the basics, as did the warm tones of Lester Young.

In his late teens, Berklee Music School professors and fellow jazz explorers (including future collaborators John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Kenny Werner) steered him toward the freewheeling vanguard of late-period Coltrane and experimenters such as Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman. Lovano was a sponge, absorbing anything that would make him a more instinctive player.

"My training was all be-bop," Lovano said in a recent interview. "Suddenly there were these open forms with deceptive resolutions. That turned me on, the combination of that sound and what I came in there with. I knew what I wanted to work on after that."

In the late 1970s, his developing talents came under the watchful eye of legendary bandleader Woody Herman, who saw him as a future star and made him a soloist. Yet Lovano considers his 12-year tenure with the Mel Lewis orchestra most instrumental in fueling his desire to become a soloist.

"When you play in a band like that, with four or five other saxophone soloists, there is some competition at work," he said. "When you stand up and take your solo, you want it to be real personal; you don't want to sound like the guy that just played before you."

Lovano recently got an opportunity to pay a long-in-coming tribute to another musical hero, with his Celebrating Sinatra album, a collection of his favorite songs by the singer, who he says "made a melody come alive with elegance."

Lovano's warm, woody tones cruise through a mix of Sinatra's ballads as well as upbeat swing songs. Said Lovano of his hero: "One of the things that jazz musicians like about Sinatra is that he's almost never sentimental. He can be romantic, but rarely does he give up that emotional ground. To me that has been a distinction that I've tried to bring to my own music."