Saxophonist Joe Lovano says it’s worth traveling to an obscure corner of the Pacific Northwest just to play with the world’s greatest musicians, even if it’s only two or three songs.
“When you can play with such great players as Elvin Jones and Hank Jones and Bruce Bromberg, yeah, it’s a thrill,” said Lovano from his New York City home. Next Thursday, he will make his second appearance at the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
The festival draws thousands of music students, who come from all over the western United States and Canada to perform in instrumental and vocal competitions. Mainstage concerts, featuring some of the greatest names in jazz, are held evenings on Wednesday through Feb. 22. Many of the guest musicians also lead hour-long clinics during the day, which are free and open to the public.
The big draws at this year’s festival are Lou Rawls, who is becoming a perennial festival guest; singer Dianne Reeves, tenor player Joshua Redman and the festival’s namesake, Lionel Hampton.
The players to watch, though, are Lovano and pianist Cedar Walton next Thursday, and pianist Geri Allen and trumpeter Wallace Roney on Friday, Feb. 21.
As always, the event is an embarrassment of riches. The festival’s house quartet stars the hugely influential Jones brothers, Hank on piano and Elvin on drums, along with guitar great Herb Ellis and bassist Brian Bromberg, who always thrills festival crowds with his flashy solos.
Claudio Roditi, the splashy trumpeter, will appear again this year, as will Bay Area vocalist Kitty Margolis. Names such as Benny Golson, Bill Watrous, Al Grey and Kenny Washington dot the festival schedule.
There’s another brother thing happening, too: Mike (sax) and Randy (trumpet) Brecker will play Feb. 21, and Pete and Connie Candoli, both on trumpet, appear next Thursday.
The aging Hampton, who recently survived a house fire and who has been slowed by strokes, will lead his big band Saturday, Feb. 22. If his performance two years ago is an indicator, Hampton still drops a good 10 or 15 years once he gets behind his vibes, and he still plays with a master’s touch.
But if all those musicians on the same stage at the same time is a jazz fan’s dream, it’s a dream with a down side. The stage gets crowded, and the musicians can shuffle on and off so quickly they never get anything going with each other.
“It’s tough to make it not sound like a jam session,” Lovano said last week. “We’ll get together in rehearsal and try to work something up.”
Like most jazz musicians, Lovano is used to winging it. But like many of the greatest players, he has developed a distinctive sound that doesn’t translate as well in a jam session as when he is surrounded by seasoned collaborators.
Born in Cleveland in 1952, Lovano was schooled in jazz by his tenor-playing father. He worked early on in the Woody Herman band, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band and in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. He did a notable stint with guitarist John Scofield and played with guitarist Bill Frisell.
He made his first record as a leader in 1985 and by 1990 was creating records which portended stardom. In 1993, “Universal Language” introduced the sound that is now the touchstone of his playing.
Lovano taught at Sandpoint’s Schweitzer Institute of Music from 1993-95, the precise period during which his reputation went from obscure respect to international recognition.
Now he is widely regarded as the pre-eminent tenor sax player of his day. Last February, the New Yorker’s jazz critic wrote a glowing review titled “Lovano the Great” which included this argument, “… a savior has been slowly materializing in the nineties - the astonishing tenor saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano.”
“Move over Pavarotti,” howled the Village Voice, “the greatest Italian tenor around today isn’t Luciani, but Lovano.”
Lovano’s last three records have won Grammy nominations, and he has been voted Jazz Musician of the Year by Downbeat magazine readers for the past two years.
His new record, “Celebrating Sinatra,” has the clear sound of a winner as well, adroitly bending the burly saxman’s trademark sound around a batch of Sinatra classics in a way that might catch the interest of a broader audience than his other, more challenging, work.
“It’s very challenging to play and focus on the music of someone like Sinatra,” Lovano said. “There’s a very high standard there, in these particular tunes and the way he did them - the soulfulness, the phrasing - and the way Lester Young and the other cats played them. That evokes a lot of feelings when you play.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival schedule Here are the mainstage concerts for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Wednesday through Feb. 22. All shows will be held in the Kibbie Dome in Moscow unless noted otherwise. Tuesday: 8 p.m., The Lionel Hampton School of Music will present a special pre-festival tribute to Lionel Hampton in the University of Idaho auditorium. Drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Brian Bromberg will play every night as the Festival Quartet. Wednesday: 6:30 p.m., pianist Andy LaVerne. Wednesday: 7 p.m., Pepsi International World Jazz Concert: trumpeter Claudio Roditi, vocalist Kitty Margolis, tenor saxophonist Igor Butman, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Green, pianist Helio Alves, and the duo Travelin’ Light, featuring Sam Pilafian on tuba and Frank Vignola on banjo. Feb. 20: 6:30 p.m., Crosscurrent. Feb. 20: 7 p.m., Northwest Airlines Special Guest Concert: tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, The Cedar Walton Trio, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, vocalist and pianist Diana Krall, trombonist Bill Watrous and trumpeters Pete and Conte Candoli. Feb. 21: 4:45 p.m. Vocal Winners Concert. Tickets: $5 general admission. Feb. 21: 7:30 p.m., pianist Jim Martinez. Feb. 21: 8 p.m., All-Star Concert: vocalist Lou Rawls, trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Bill Evans, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Wallace Roney and the Monte Alexander Trio. Feb. 22: 4:45 p.m., Washington Water Power Instrumental Winners Concert. Tickets: $5. Feb. 22: 7:30 p.m., Hampton Trombone Factory. Feb. 22: 8 p.m., GTE Giants of Jazz Concert: Lionel Hampton and his New York Big Band, vocalist Dianne Reeves, and the Brian Bromberg Band. Tickets range from $18 to $25. For tickets and information, call Ticket Express at 885-7212 in the Moscow-Pullman area, or (888) 8-U-IDAHO outside of that area. Or call G&B Select-a-Seat at 325-SEAT in the Spokane area or (800) 325-SEAT.
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