I write today in praise of Joe Lovano, a man whom I called in NYMag's jazz listings "the laughing Buddha of mainstream jazz." Ten years ago—on June 2nd, 2001 to be exact—I went to the Vanguard for the very first time, a 16-year-old discovering the music, taken with Lovano's 1992 release From the Soul. (The copy I had of Richard Cook and Brian Morton's Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD had called the disc something like "the definitive jazz album of the nineties," hyperbole that they edited out of subsequent editions.) Lovano was playing that night with two trios, a rhythmic assault that echoes in the dual-drummer format of his latest band, Us Five. After the set, I approached Joe, asked if he could sign my copy of Trio Fascination: Vol. 2, and he ushered me back to "the kitchen," as the Vanguard's greenroom is called. Joe didn't just sign my CD, he asked me about myself—what I played, where I lived—and he told me about his straight-alto horn and where he was heading on his tour (Dallas was the next stop).
That event feels fresh because last night, I went back to the Vanguard to hear Lovano. The club was jammed, seemingly fuller than a usual sell-out; and the band was big league, especially the drummers Matt Wilson and Otis Brown III. Lovano took a while to warm up—his breathy tone can be wispy and strangely insubstantial; but as the night wore on, it grew sharp and mighty. The pianist James Wiedman was stellar, awakening dark harmonies that played beautifully off the heavy grooves.
Of course, the band's bassist was the biggest star of all: Ms. Esperanza Spalding, she of the Obama Nobel Prize gig and the Grammy Best New Artist nod. In a band like this, Spalding was pretty clearly the least assured musician. That's not surprising. She's the youngest and least experienced by leaps and bounds. When I saw Lovano in 2001, he'd been a big jazz star for a dozen years and he was, famously, a late bloomer. Esperanza Spalding was a junior in high school.
What impressed me about Spalding in the gig wasn't her playing—which certainly wasn't bad, but lacked the confidence and dexterity of the musicians around her—but that she, despite her rapidly growing celebrity, chooses to keep learning. If Esperanza Spalding wanted to, she could spend all of her time doing jazz-crossover gigs with a crack backing band while earning a lot of money. That's what Chris Botti does. That's what Harry Connick Jr. once did. (It's kind of mind-boggling now to think that Harry Connick Jr. once played the Vanguard.) But to her immense credit, Esperanza seems to want to be a really good musician more than she wants to be a star; and she realizes that the way to do that is to play with better musicians. It's an attribute that's going to serve her very well. (What's Harry up to these days, anyway?)
WBGO's Josh Jackson was on-site last night to record the first set for NPR's broadcast "Live at the Village Vanguard." Available here.
And Us Five just put out an excellent album, Bird Songs, Lovano's tribute to Charlie Parker. To help plug it, he wrote a few words about his favorite Charlie Parker performances for NYMag. Check it out here (scroll down).