Joe Lovano is mindful of his own musical history every time he straps on his saxophone and plays.
“Every time you play and you explore ways of playing together, whatever the material is, it’s a journey and it’s an experience for us as a band, and for the audience also to feel and watch and listen to the music unfold,” he said recently from his home in the Hudson Valley.
“We’re not trying to re-create a rehearsal, or any piece of music if it’s a famous song. . . . But to actually live in [these songs] and explore them within our own personal history and development is the magic in jazz.”
It’s a history that now spans five decades and his 23 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, including the latest with his quintet Us Five, “Cross Culture,” released last week. For him, it’s all connected in a larger story, and it all comes out in his playing — from his earliest work with drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Bill Frisell; to his many collaborations with guitarist John Scofield; to recent playing with the SFJAZZ Collective and McCoy Tyner.
Joe Lovano’s Us Five
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
How Much: $29.50, $27.50 (members)
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“As a leader, I want to touch on my personal history, which has gone through a lot of different moments, from when I was playing with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell — that trio is a big foundation in my development from 1981 on,” Lovano said. “Playing with great leaders like [Motian] and visionaries has really given me a strong concept about being a leader myself, and my quintet is exploring those things in the same kind of way.”
The Us Five quintet, featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding, pianist James Wiedman and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, has been Lovano’s main project since 2007. On Sunday, the band will perform at The Egg, almost exactly one year after Lovano’s last performance at the venue with Scofield.
Over the course of three albums — 2009’s mostly original “Folk Art,” 2011’s exploration of Charlie Parker’s music “Bird Songs” and now “Cross Culture” — Us Five has explored Lovano’s fascination with world music. And as with everything else he has done, these albums are all part of a bigger narrative as well.
“ ‘Folk Art’ was first, and it’s all my original pieces; the second album was ‘Bird Songs’ with some of Charlie Parker’s compositions arranged with this configuration in mind, double drummers and things,” Lovano said. “It’s really led into the new material that’s on ‘Cross Culture.’ ”
“Cross Culture” in particular highlights the band’s world music bent, featuring Lovano experimenting with different reed and percussion instruments he’s collected over his years of international touring, in addition to his trademark tenor saxophone playing. And the compositions themselves deal with larger ideas of cultures coming together in today’s world, according to Lovano.
“ ‘Cross Culture,’ the tunes on that, from the development of the band and the way we’re creating spontaneous rhythms, [have] a real tribal element to it,” Lovano said.
“It’s touching on something very different in today’s music on the scene. It’s not a big mathematical exercise when we play; it’s a matter of organic feeling. . . . My piece ‘Myths and Legends’ represents the history of mankind and the journey of people, the cross-cultural mix of the way we live today, and how this cross-cultural mix of folks need to embrace each other and feed off each other’s natural feeling and rhythm. We try to find that in the music — the music has always been a statement of the people, from my first record to ‘Folk Art.’ ”
Much of the album was recorded with West African guitarist Lionel Loueke, who further adds to the world music influences. Lovano actually first became aware of Loueke around the time he was putting together Us Five in the early 2000s.
“He was up in Boston in earlier 2002, 2003, 2004, the same period I first met and played with Francisco Mela, and then Esperanza Spalding, one of the young, incredibly talented students that was placed in one of my ensembles [at Berklee College of Music] in 2004,” Lovano said.
“But Lionel, he was always kind of — his sound and personality was always somewhere in my consciousness, and it made its way to this moment very naturally.”
Although the band began playing some of the pieces on “Cross Culture” during its last tours behind the Grammy-nominated “Bird Songs,” much of the album was recorded on the spot, with no rehearsals — including the tracks that Loueke plays on, such as the aforementioned “Myths and Legends,” the album’s second track.
“He came in straight on the session,” Lovano said. “Most of the tunes he plays on are new pieces that the band hadn’t heard or played yet — we just kind of talked a little bit about structures, ran down a few of the melodic points in the pieces and made a take. It was very organic, very natural the way those pieces came together.”
Some songs on the album, such as “Journey Within” and “Drum Chant,” feature little more than percussion, Loueke’s guitar and Lovano’s horn playing. Live, the band will also split into different iterations, with different duo, trio and quartet setups drawn from the full quintet. Without Loueke on tour, the band is free to improvise even more to fill the space.
“There’ll be just a little space where he was that will naturally be filled in,” Lovano said.
“You know, when you break down into different groups, different people can contribute their ideas in a clear way, and things will come together in another kind of way.”
All the improvisation and looseness of the live show, and the cross-cultural influences, go back to the musical journey Lovano has been on for most of his life.
“That goes back to the earliest things with the Duke Ellington band and on, onward — ‘The Far East Suite’ that Ellington and [Billy] Strayhorn put together — they were traveling, experiencing cultures and letting those feelings come through in the music,” he said.
Always a surprise
“To me, that’s the beauty and essence of this music — as you develop through the years, that process creates who you are. Your sound and feelings are what people are going to come for, the gravity for people to come and check you out. Your recording is a picture of what they might experience at the moment — the repertoire, the personnel and all that. But the music can always be a surprise.”