Joe Lovano Us Five - Bird Songs

Joe Lovano’s Us Five - Bird Songs
Blue Note, 2011

Joe Lovano and his Us Five, the mostly young and all-talented band that’s been together for a few years now, offer a meditation on the work of Charlie Parker in Lovano's 22nd album for Blue Note, Bird Songs. In excellent form, Us Five follows up on 2009’s Folk Art and 2010 awards from the JJA and the Downbeat Critics Poll with an unexpectedly relaxed consideration of Bird tunes.

A recording of this nature – a major contemporary tenor playing the work of a bebop legend – does not escape Lovano, who has written about the project: “Putting this recording together I kept wondering how Bird would have developed within these tunes, not just as the incredible soloist that he was but as an arranger and band leader. From what we know about him it is clear that he was into the world of music beyond so called Jazz and Be Bop and I’m sure we would have all been surprised at every turn in his approach just as we were with Miles, Coltrane, Rollins and Coleman, four of his most distinguished and celebrated disciples.

The US Five lineup finds Lovano joined by recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding on bass and James Weidman on piano, and features two drummers -- Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela. As one might expect, the possibility exists for the double-drumming to become a clattering distraction, but both Brown and Mela stay away from the lower and louder timbres of their kits and spend much of their time working the cymbals in very careful interplay. Each drummer is mixed to his own side of the recording – left or right – and headphone listening will immediately reward the percussion-minded.

The manner in which this music is mixed and mastered takes a bit of adjustment, with the tenor and drums most prominent across the sound space, the bass and piano down under. I found myself repeatedly turning up the volume to hear the piano and bass, which made the percussion and sax all the more prominent. It appears that the rhythmic qualities of the playing are a feature Lovano wants to make more obvious. Overall, the album sounds light, airy, and rhythmically dense – an all the more notable contrast with Bird's playing, which was often intense, solid, and harmonically complex.

The album's first tune, “Passport,” opens with a fanfare of sorts – a rising phrase alternating with a suspenseful low vamp – that builds tension before the band's entry into Bird land. The rest of the song is a moderately paced take on the familiar “I Got Rhythm” changes, save for a couple of rip-snorting choruses, when Lovano plays not just fast but a little outside the changes. The usually brisk “Donna Lee” becomes a ballad in Lovano's reworking, and although the Brown and Mela sound at times as if they want to go galloping off, Lovano always keeps the phrasing drawn-out and the tempo thoughtful.

The lilting “Barbados” makes the most of Spalding’s facility with Caribbean rhythms, with the drummers working very nicely off each other and Lovano having fun with the earthier tones his horn can produce. The playfulness continues on “Moose the Mooche,” taken here at a slower pace, with the feeling of walking the bar, hanging on a single bluesy riff of the melody while Lovano explores some fine post-bop ideas.
The bright ballad “Lover Man” is a bit more recognizable in tempo and arrangement, and features some of Lovano's most lyrical playing. On a tune where two drummers could be most disruptive and distracting, Mela and Brown show great taste and restraint. Spalding and Weidman do their best solo work on this tune, one of the strongest on the album. If you want to hear how Us Five swing best from bar to bar and phrase to phrase, this is the tune to listen to.

After this point, the explorations become more notable. “Birdyard” is distinguished by Lovano on the aulochrome (the double-soprano sax), heard over a simple descending vamp. “Ko Ko” is simply Lovano and his drummers, finding bits and pieces of the tune in a primarily rhythmic context; interesting listening, but nothing to get your toe-tapping. A counterpoint to this is “Blues Collage,” Lovano just with piano and bass, a brief exploration of many of Parker's riffs played in a clever, layered jazz round. “Dexterity,” another short tune, begins with the instruments in disparate places, then works its way back to a familiar form.

The last two tracks are the most ambitious. “Dewey Square,” stretching over eight minutes, is at times a familiar recasting of Parker's original, while at other it breaks down completely into a free, open form. Even more generous is “Yardbird Suite,” stretched out over almost 12 minutes, opening like a dream, with a raucous uptempo center, and a return to a lush ending. At this point, listener's will hopefully have made the adjustments to the band's deconstruction and reconstruction of Parker's tunes, and the music should carry them along just fine.

Joe Lovano - Saxophones
James Weidman - Piano
Esperanza Spalding - Bass
Otis Brown III - Drums
Francisco Mela - Drums 

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