ASPEN - As the son of the noted jazz player Tony "Big T" Lovano, Joe Lovano, as a teenager, got to play in a lot of gigs in a lot of different settings, exploring a lot of different musical styles. But mostly what he took away from those early gigs was the thrill of meeting a new musical personality - discovering how an older white guy from New York, say, would have a different way of expressing himself than a 20-year-old black kid from Lovano's hometown of Cleveland.
"I grew up around all these cats my dad was playing with," Lovano, like his father, a saxophonist, said. "It was joyous to be in all these encounters with other folks. I became real comfortable playing music with that generational divide, and that multi-cultural divide. I always strived to be in a lot of settings. Very early, I understood things about playing music with people."
Lovano has also learned the value of constancy in his musical partnerships. His friendship with drummer Paul Motian, who died toward the end of 2011, produced 17 albums over a quarter-century (including one of my desert island discs, 2004's "I Have the Room Above Her," a trio recording with guitarist Bill Frisell). Lovano appeared on a handful of guitarist John Scofield's highly regarded recordings in the early '90s.
With Us Five, Lovano is getting the best of both worlds. The quintet, which features two drummers, is a generational hodgepodge that runs from a 60-year-old leader, Lovano, down to a 28-year-old, the renowned bassist Esperanza Spalding, with a 30-something, a 40-something and a 50-something rounding out the combo. James Weidman is, like Lovano, a native Midwesterner; unlike Lovano, Weidman is black. Spalding has African, Hispanic, Welsh and native American blood, along with a deep interest in Brazilian music. Francisco Mela was born in Cuba; his fellow drummer, Otis Brown III, in New Jersey.
But Us Five is also on its way to becoming something of an institution. The group recorded its debut album. "Folk Art," late in 2008, and returned two years later with "Bird Songs," a Grammy-nominated album centered around compositions by saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, including "Moose the Mooche," "Ko Ko" and "Yardbird Suite." Last month, the quintet released "Cross Culture," making it Lovano's third album in a row that uses the same personnel, a rarity for Lovano.
"This quintet is very special," Lovano, who leads the combo to a show Friday at the Wheeler Opera House, said from his home, some 40 miles north of Manhattan, in New York's Hudson River Valley. "There's a real trust, something that happens between the members as we're developing within the repertoire. It's a matter of feeling each other exploring, the trust to lay out and see what happens. That happens when you trust each other and really listen. From the first time they played together, that was happening. They weren't just showboating; they were into each other's music. Over five years of recording and playing, that's gotten deeper."
Several years and three albums in, Us Five still represents for Lovano a maximum amount of freedom, flexibility and openness. "It's an open door to explore music," he said. The group allows Lovano to bring in a wealth of his own musical ideas; "Cross Culture" features 10 of his new, original compositions. It allows Lovano, who specializes in tenor sax, to move not only into other saxophones, but also various percussion instruments, including an Israeli paddle drum and a Nigerian slit drum known as an oborom. On "Cross Culture," at least, Us Five is a gateway to other musicians, as Lionel Loueke, a guitarist from Ivory Coast, sits in on half the album.
Much of the flexibility stems from the unusual two-drummer format. Lovano has used a multiple-drummer approach since the '70s, but Us Five is a full immersion into the concept and the possibilities that emerge.
"You have a variety of ways of playing together," he said, noting that the group can split off into multiple smaller ensembles of duos, trios and quartets. "This quintet allows me to explore all kinds of music, but focus on the way we express it within this combo. That's what's happening in this group."
Lovano connected with the members of Us Five on different paths of his life. Weidman moved from the Midwest to New York City around the same time as Lovano, in the 1970s. Mela was a teaching colleague of Lovano's at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Spalding, as a teenager, was a student at Berklee, and was placed in one of Lovano's ensembles. "She contributed some beautiful melodies, nice feelings. Right away I included her in some things," Lovano said of Spalding, who in 2011 became the first jazz musician to win the Grammy for Best New Artist. Lovano first met Brown in Snowmass Village, when Brown was a student in Jazz Aspen Snowmass' JAS Academy and Lovano was an instructor.
The fact that all came to Lovano by different routes reinforces the fundamental concept of Us Five, of bringing together five distinct musical personalities.
"Everybody's backgrounds and natural feelings are coming from different places," Lovano said, noting that his desire was to have each musician bring in their take on folk music. "That all comes through."
Us Five was born, in part, out of Lovano's interest in the two-drummer format. He was inspired by hearing the percussion ensembles led by Max Roach and Art Blakey, and by the work Lovano himself did with multiple drummers, including the team of Idris Muhammad and Joey Baron. "That's why I call it Us Five. If it were the Joe Lovano Quintet, it wouldn't be with a double drummer."
At this point, though, Us Five transcends the two-drummer concept, and has become about the specific people in the group.
"It's the personalities," Lovano said. "When you put a group together, it's the people who make the music happen."
Lovano seems intent to keep digging. He recognizes that there is a strong pull for Spalding to explore other opportunities, so another bassist, the Hungarian-born Peter Slavov, is occasionally brought in to tour. He also recorded some tracks on "Cross Culture."
"You never know. You go day to day, But she wants to make time to tour with us," Lovano said about Spalding's future in Us Five.
The group, though, has more ground to cover.
"I feel I'm just scratching the surface," Lovano said.