Back in 2014, the legendary post-bop jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano met his friend and mentor, the great composer Gunther Schuller, for dinner in Boston. At 88, Schuller was in the midst of a particularly fertile period. That year he premiered two works in Boston alone: “From Here to There” at the New England Conservatory and “Games,” a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players for their 50th anniversary.
“Gunther was so excited about these premieres and these pieces—he was speaking like a little kid,” Lovano remembers. “He told me that he was finally feeling like his sound was coming through. That when people hear his orchestrations or his compositions, they know it’s him without reading in the program. … And he was almost 90 years old! It was amazing.”
That searching spirit is one Lovano intends to honor in a tribute concert at Killian Hall in Cambridge on Oct. 4, a little over a year after Schuller’s death. The program will include compositions by Schuller, Lovano and MIT Professor of Music Peter Child, and feature performances by Lovano, jazz vocalist Judi Silvano, violinist Young-Nam Kim, MIT-affiliated bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and drummer Fred Harris, Director of MIT’s Wind Ensemble and Festival Jazz Ensemble.
Schuller, who was born in Queens, New York and eventually settled in Newton, Mass., wore many hats throughout his life. He was, at various points, a French horn prodigy who got his start as a principle hornist with the Cincinnati Orchestra, a young jazz session player, director of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and president of the New England Conservatory. He counted the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant among his many awards, and was a renowned composer, conductor, teacher and author. But he was most famous for conceiving a style of composition that merged principles of both classical and jazz, which he dubbed Third Stream music. “At its best it’s done with the greatest respect to both art forms,” Lovano says of Schuller’s influential musical aesthetic.
Lovano met Schuller through the composer’s son, Edwin, when the two were students at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, respectively. “He embraced me within his family,” Lovano says of the elder Schuller. “The trust that he gave me to play [his music] with my own personal interpretation … was the biggest lesson. Because you have to be your own player. And he let me do that. And to have someone of Gunther’s stature do that for you, it’s a serious springboard into your whole expressive life.”
The MIT concert will kick off with Child’s Third Stream composition “Moonsculptures,” featuring Lovano and Kim. Following that, Lovano, Silvano, Kaumeheiwa and Harris will perform stripped-down excerpts from Lovano’s 1995 Grammy-nominated album “Rush Hour,” for which Schuller famously provided orchestrations. The evening will also contain compositional tributes from Lovano and Harris. Both pieces incorporate the late composer’s “magic row”—a particular 12-note melodic pattern that Schuller dreamed up in the ‘70s and employed in all of his subsequent compositions. “You hear this certain melodic invention throughout [Schuller’s] music,” Lovano says. “Whether he was writing for full symphony orchestras in a real modern classical way, or if he was writing for more jazz-inspired pieces.”
Lovano’s relationship with MIT dates back to 2002, when Harris invited him to perform as a guest artist with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. Harris describes Lovano as “one of a very select few who have the ability to be so expressive and so powerful. Not from a loud standpoint, but musically powerful. Engaging.” Harris was especially impressed by Lovano’s approach with the ensemble’s student musicians. “He didn’t play down to them. He made them play like he plays.”
“All of the most beautiful players in jazz, and in music in general, are people that can express themselves freely,” Lovano says. That is what he tries to impart to his students at Berklee, where he holds the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance. “I’ll say, you can go for a walk in the woods as an exercise, and walk a mile, and it’s an exercise. You could do that same mile and see every bird and hear every little thing around you … and it’s not an exercise. You’re still walking that mile, but it’s not an exercise. If you play like it’s an exercise, then that’s what it’s going to be.”
Though Schuller, a composer, and Lovano, an improviser, exist to some degree in different musical worlds, their work shares the same extraordinary ability to reveal its author. A Schuller composition always contains traces of that signature melodic motif, and a Lovano solo always sings with the same husky fervor.
And like his mentor, Lovano finds himself endlessly challenged by the task of artistic expression.
“I just feel like I’m really scratching the surface,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a multigenerational world of musicians and the multicultural world that we live in … you stay inspired, because there’s so much you haven’t done. But yet, what you have done gives you all this foundation to build on. So it’s always like a new day, for me.”