Upon graduation from high school he attended the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston where he met and began playing with such future collaborators as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Kenny Werner. He had been searching for a way to incorporate the fire and spirituality of late-period John Coltrane into more traditional settings. At Berklee he discovered modal harmony: "My training was all be-bop, and suddenly there were these open forms with deceptive resolutions. That turned me on, the combination of that sound and what I came in there with. I knew what I wanted to work on after that." In 1994 Joe was given the prestigious "Distinguished Alumni Award" from Berklee.
Joe's first professional job after Berklee was, not surprisingly given his roots, with organist Lonnie Smith, which brought him to New York for his recording debut, followed by a stint with Brother Jack McDuff. This segued into a three year tour with the Woody Herman Thundering Herd from 1976 to 1979, culminating in "The 40th Anniversary Concert" at Carnegie Hall, which also featured Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Flip Phillips and Al Cohn.
After leaving the Herman Herd Joe settled in New York City where he continues to live. His early years there were filled with jam sessions and rent gigs, but eventually he joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra for its regular Monday night concert at the Village Vanguard, playing from 1980 to 1992 and recording six albums with the Orchestra. In addition he worked with Elvin Jones, Carla Bley, Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden and Bob Brookmeyer, among others, eventually joining the modern drummer Paul Motion's band in 1981.
His first high-profile gig that brought him national attention was with guitarist John Scofield's Quartet, with whom he recorded and toured for three years. Of his playing Scofield says, "He's very sonically aware - he thinks about the effect different instruments and different personalities will have. He was perfect for what I was doing - his sense of swing and his tone reminded me of the older guys, in a really positive way." He gained further exposure and renown, particularly in Europe, through his work in the trailblazing Paul Motion Trio, which also features former Berklee classmate, guitarist Bill Frisell.
Beginning in 1991 with his first engagement as a leader (at the Village Vanguard), Joe has experimented with different ensembles which reflect his searching and dynamic personality. As much a composer as player, Joe is constantly seeking new ways to express his muse. Out of his thinking, writing and playing he has come to work, as a leader, with two basic ensembles - a piano-less Quartet and the Universal Language Sextet. The Sextet (which name derives from its Blue Note debut album Universal Language) features the soprano voice of Judi Silvano, whose wordless vocals mesh beautifully in both ensemble and improvised passages with Joe, as well as trumpeter Tim Hagans and pianist Kenny Werner. The critical response to the Sextet's album and live concerts has been extraordinary, with Down Beat giving it a 5 star review which was considered so exceptional it was reprinted in their recent 60th Anniversary Issue. The Quartet in person features either Tom Harrell or Tim Hagans on trumpet, along with Anthony Cox on bass and Billy Hart on drums. A recent live recording from the Village Vanguard will be released in the Fall of 1995 on Blue Note in a special double "Live at the Village Vanguard" CD including a more recent recording from the same club with a quartet including Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash. Joe's 1994 release, Tenor Legacy (Blue Note 27014) which features tenor saxophonist Josh Redman, received wide critical acclaim, culminating in a Grammy nomination for "Best Jazz Small Group Recording."
Predictably unpredictable, Joe's latest album, Rush Hour (Blue Note 29629), released in early 1995, reflects his restless searching and desire to expand his musical palette. It features his tenor saxophone with voice, string and woodwind ensembles arranged and conducted by the legendary Gunther Schuller, in compositions by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller and Joe Lovano. As CD Review's "Disc of the Month", stated, "Music doesn't get any better than this. This disc is a wonder." In support of this historic release Joe will be touring the rest of the year with a group created to perform music from the album. Called the "Symbiosis Quintet" it features Joe along with voice, cello, bass and drums.