Blue Note Records
Joe Lovano’s Us Five is a unique, drummer-intensive band, Francisco Mela in the left channel, Otis Brown III in the right. James Weidman and Lionel Loueke (a guest on six tracks) play piano and guitar. Esperanza Spalding, now reconciling sideperson work and her post-Grammy solo career, shares bass duties with Peter Slavov. All fulfill defined ensemble roles in support of Lovano. Everyone contributes to the nuanced group interplay.
Their other two Blue Note albums, Folk Art and Bird Songs, sat toward the top of the jazz polls in 2009 and 2011. Cross Culture will make the board in 2013, but probably not at the top. It is a quality project, but in a specialized niche. Lovano seeks “universal musical languages” and “energy that ... precedes all the styles in jazz.” Layers of percussion, exotic instruments like the tarogato, Loueke’s guitar colors from Africa: If we are not in the realm of world music, we are somewhere close.
And Lovano, one of the great improvisers in jazz, concentrates here on his compositions and specific ensemble concepts. “Journey Within” and “In a Spin” are intricate spirals. Lovano traces them carefully on his various saxophones (tenor, G-mezzo soprano, aulochrome) and never breaks out. “Myths and Legends” also takes place in a confined musical space, Lovano running in place. He should put aside the aulochrome, a double soprano saxophone whose duets with itself are gimmicky and annoying.
On the best tracks, Lovano opens up more. “Blessings in May” overflows with his ideas about springtime and rebirth. “Royal Roost” is a quintessential Lovano tenor extravagance: It rolls on like a river, bubbling and tumbling. “PM,” for Paul Motian, is a freewheeling celebration of a great creative spirit. Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers” is the one piece Lovano did not write. Only strong men like Lovano and Ben Webster can whisper so gently and profoundly of doomed love.