Monday, September 16, 2019
Jamming with the SPCO (story audio)


Jamming with the SPCO
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Saxophonist Joe Lovano rehearses with guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke)
When acclaimed tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano plays in the Twin Cities this weekend, he won't be found in any of the local jazz clubs. Instead he'll be on stage at the Ordway improvising with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

St. Paul, Minn. — When musicians come to town to solo with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, they usually play music that's completely written out. With the exception of the occasional cadenza, they don't get to cut loose like a jazz musician does.

"To improvise is the most sophisticated form of music to me," Joe Lovano says.

The tenor saxophonist has been on the national scene for over three decades, but had never played with a pure classical orchestra. Then British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote him a mini-concerto called, "A Man Descending." The work is titled after Ralph Vaughan Williams piece for violin and orchestra, "A Lark Ascending" and was co-commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Lovano and the SPCO will play Turnage's work twice during each concert. During the first half of the program, Lovano will play his part as written. Then he'll return following intermission and play the work again, but this time he'll completely improvise his part. However, Lovano says unlike in jazz, he won't be soloing over a repeating harmonic structure. "It's a whole different approach about improvising and creating spontaneous melodies when you're moving with harmony that continues and doesn't really revolve and play in any kind of cycle."

Joe Lovano has played "A Man Descending" in concert twice before, but Thursday morning's rehearsal with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was the first time he ever completely improvised his part. He and the SPCO first ran through the Mark-Anthony Turnage piece as written, and then played it again with Lovano soloing freely over the orchestra. Lovano discovered that it became quite a different piece of music the second time.

"In the written version," he says, "the spaces are there. They're set. I play when I play. The orchestra plays when it plays. But when I'm improvising on it, I can leave different spaces so the orchestra might come through in a section it did not come through before. And there might be moments where I play where I didn't play before."

While playing "A Man Descending" as composer Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote it, Joe Lovano says the orchestra follows him. In the improvised version, the orchestra takes the lead.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Music Director of the Fort Worth Symphony, is guest conducting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this week. He says Lovano isn't used to playing next to someone waving a stick.

"I think I find myself as if I was a pianist," he explains. "I play something and then he gets to play around me. And that's how it happens. In the second time I take more of the lead in setting the music and then he plays with it."

Classical composers have experimented with jazz since the early 20th century. Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland all wrote music inspired by the rhythms and harmonies of jazz. Yet the mixing of the jazz and classical worlds still remains something of a novelty, but Joe Lovano believes that these sorts of collaborations are likely to become more common.

"I think it'll start to be more alive when more players from within the orchestra can improvise," he says. "When a violist can stand up and join me for a moment here and there and then lead to a bass interplay with the soloists, freely on harmony and expanding on some of the written parts. When that starts to happen more, then I think the music is going to really expand into something new."

Jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano joins the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "A Man Descending" Friday and Saturday at the Ordway Center. Lovano will also join the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota for a concert mixing jazz and classical music Sunday evening at the Minnesota History Center.