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Joe Lovano Us Five: Bird Songs

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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.

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