Not every saxophonist tours in the company of a best new artist Grammy Award winner, but then Joe Lovano isn't just any saxophonist.

At 60, he's recognized as a defining figure on the contemporary jazz scene, an artist who's absorbed a vast array of influences and forged a fluid, rhythmically charged, alluringly textured sound. He opens a three-night run Thursday at Yoshi's in Oakland with UsFive, his band anchored by bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, the crossover star who made history in 2011 as the first jazz artist to take home the pop-dominated best new artist Grammy. Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa Jazz Center added a second show Monday after the first show sold out.

Dave Douglas performs with the Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Quintet at  the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I. on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Joe
Dave Douglas performs with the Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Quintet at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I. on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Joe Giblin) ( Joe Giblin )

The 28-year-old Spalding spent the past two years touring with her "Chamber Music Society" and "Radio Music Society" projects (the latter CD cracked Billboard's Top 10 album chart). But she remains devoted to Lovano, the most consequential creative connection she made studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music as a teenager.

Immediately impressed by her technique and presence, Lovano started performing with Spalding in a trio with Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, another Berklee faculty member at the time. Within two years, Spalding was teaching at Berklee, and Lovano started hiring her as a sub for his band, gigs that introduced her to the European scene.


Advertisement

"From the very first tune she played, Esperanza was very melodic, with beautiful execution," Lovano recalls. "When she came to New York, she started to sub with me, and it evolved into this quintet. She got thrown into superstardom, winning this award that no jazz or classical had ever been considered for before, which they should have been! She snuck in and took that prize because she really deserved it as a brilliant musician -- nothing against Justin Bieber."

Spalding often credits Lovano as a key musical influence and bandleading role model. She's walked the walk by continuing to tour and record with UsFive, including the band's recent album "Cross Culture" (Blue Note), which also features pianist James Weidmen and drummers Otis Brown III and Mela. Aggressive, melodic and propulsive, her playing provides the band with an essential tether as it cycles through various instrumental configurations.

While ostensibly a quintet, UsFive is actually a constantly reconfiguring ensemble that flows from full-band passages into various duos, trios and quartets. Lovano adds to the shifting sonorities and textures shifting by moving between his main horn, tenor saxophone, the Hungarian tarogato and aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone), and various percussion implements, including an oborom, a Nigerian slit drum.

"You get into this space where you have to float two inches above the ground and be able to do any dance move at the drop of a hat," Spalding said in a phone interview two years ago. "Otis and Mela's styles are completely different, and these melodies are happening that want to carry you to heaven."

While Spalding is the highest profile member of UsFive, the band is built upon Lovano's abiding love of the trap set. An accomplished drummer, he grew up in Cleveland studying with his father, respected tenor saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano. When his father's drummer got a new kit, he brought the old one home and gave it to his 8-year-old son. While he devoted himself to the horn, by his midteens he developed into a drummer capable enough to handle organ combo gigs with veteran players.

"I was obsessed with the sax," Lovano says. "I was practicing all the time, and my dad was giving me lessons, teaching me scales and chords and all the elements in music, but the drums were there. It was an outlet to sit and play and not have to study the lessons."

Lovano's career has been marked by his relationships with jazz's greatest drummers. Throughout the 1980s, he performed widely with Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis and Eddie Blackwell. He also was part of drummer Paul Motian's celebrated and widely recorded trio with guitarist Bill Frisell that ran for three decades until Motian's death last year. It was in the mid-'90s that Lovano first tried out the two-drummer formation, when he had a chance to perform at the Stanford Jazz Festival with Billy Higgins and Tootie Heath.

"Tootie and Billy had so much love and respect for each other, it was an amazing experience," Lovano says. "The way they gave each other space, listened to each other and traded ideas, things happened. That was a strong moment for me."

In UsFive, Mela and Brown have spent the past six years learning how to share the bandstand, turning each performance into a revelatory rhythmic forum. There's no Grammy award for trap set invention, but that's the axis around which jazz swings and grows.

Joe lovano's usfive

When: 8 and 10 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday
Where: Yoshi's, 510
Embarcadero W., Oakland
Tickets: $20-$25, 510-238-9200, www.yoshis.com
Also: 7 and 9 p.m. Monday, Kuumbwa Jazz Center,
320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz,
$25-$28, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org