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March 2011

Joe Lovano Us Five
Bird Songs
Blue Note Records

On Bird Songs, the challenge facing saxophonist Joe Lovano—and it’s a formidable one—is to tastefully approach Charlie Parker’s iconic repertoire and his impeccably crafted alto saxophone playing as building blocks for previously unexplored possibilities. Bold strides are required, not timid tip-toeing, so the challenge is well suited to Lovano and Us Five, the group he began in 2008 with pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III.

Long noted as an artist who thinks as hard as he plays, Lovano, 58, creates music that is brainy and brawny, earthy and urbane. On Bird Songs, he clearly relishes the opportunity to take off anew. Lovano draws from a broad lexicon that owes equal stylistic debts to some of the sax greats who inspired Parker (among them Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young) and those subsequently inspired by Parker’s innovations (including John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman). The saxophonist has a spongelike ability to absorb his influences as well as Parker’s, then mix and filter them through his own sonic lens. By doing so, he is able to put his distinctive stamp on Bird Songs—and, indeed, on Bird’s songs—much as Coleman did with his late-1959 tribute, “Bird Food,” and Jaco Pastorius did with his 1976 take on Parker’s “Donna Lee.” In Lovano’s hands, that charged bop staple is ingeniously recast on Bird Songs as a seductive ballad.

In short, Lovano pays homage without imitating, which is enhanced by his astute decision to perform eight of the 11 selections on tenor sax. He also approaches the album, in large part, by focusing on how Parker and his music might have evolved, had the alto giant not passed away at the age of 34 in 1955, a year after Lovano was born in Cleveland. Accordingly, “Dewey Square” is given a Brazilian lilt, while “Ko Ko” becomes a combustible dialogue between Lovano and drummers Mela and Brown, who communicate with near-telepathic empathy.

It’s a testament to Lovano and Us Five that they hit their ambitious marks without ever sounding contrived. The ebullient “Moose the Mooche,” to cite a key example, is slowed down here and reconfigured melodically and harmonically, then fused with a loping country-funk gait and a gritty sax approach that suggests an especially inspired meeting between Coleman and the late R&B sax titan King Curtis. Then there’s “Birdyard,” which builds upon a phrase from Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” and transforms it into a spirited incantation. It finds Lovano deftly traversing across multiple key changes on the aulochrome, a double-soprano sax whose keys can be played either separately or together so that any interval can be performed chromatically.

The complete “Yardbird Suite,” which Parker famously created in 1946, closes the album, although some purists might argue that it has become something else altogether. (It has, but that’s all for the better.) Beginning with an almost processional tone, this expanded work glides into a stately blues that becomes a freewheeling platform for Lovano, who waits nearly three minutes before directly quoting the head of the Parker original. Weidman and Spalding also contribute audacious solos to the piece, which clocks in at nearly 12 minutes without ever sounding indulgent.

The other 10 tracks on Bird Songs—Lovano’s 22nd outing for Blue Note since signing to the label 20 years ago—last just over 51 minutes combined. But they have an unhurried pace that suits them, and Bird, very well. Intriguingly, this album apparently marks the first time Lovano has recorded any Parker tunes since his 1986 version of “Now’s the Time” belatedly appeared on his 2000 album, Hometown Sessions. Now’s the time, indeed.

Originally published in March 2011
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